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Thoughts on BLACK PANTHER (spoilers)

I finally got around to seeing Black Panther yesterday, since I have a bit of money coming in and figured I could spare a few bucks to see the phenomenon while it’s still in theaters (and before Avengers: Infinity War comes out). I never got around to seeing Thor: Ragnarok in theaters — I’m in the hold queue for the DVD at the library, but there are about 1350 people ahead of me at the moment — but this was a film I had to see, given its rave reviews and its larger importance.

Usually when I go to see a film this late in its run, and in a matinee showing, I’m one of only a few people in the theater. For this film, though, the theater was fairly packed. And I can’t remember the last time I saw a movie with an audience that was so emotionally invested in the film — with people who said “Oh, no!” when a supporting character was about to be killed or applauded when the hero made a grand entrance. For once, I wasn’t annoyed when people talked in the theater, because I was interested in the way people were reacting to this movie and engaging with it.

I don’t really want to go into detail about the plot and specifics of the film, since it’s all pretty terrific and it’s all been talked about really extensively elsewhere. I thought it was fascinating on a lot of levels. I loved the portrayal of Wakandan technology and architecture, of African designs and sensibilities extrapolated into modernity and futurism without colonial influence. It made for something really fresh and intriguing to see. And I love it that the film didn’t just depict an Afrofuturist utopia, but made it textured, with its own internal problems and conflicts and mistakes, and also confronted what it would mean to black Americans — both the sense of hope and empowerment it offered, and the harsh question of whether they had the right to maintain their utopia by abandoning others in need. Killmonger is certainly the richest, most sympathetic villain the Marvel Cinematic Universe has had since Loki, if not ever, since he had a legitimate viewpoint to offer, even if his methods were too violent. He was right that his people deserved liberation, but wrong to think that just adding more violence and oppression to the world would achieve that. I could tell from very early on that the film was likely to end with T’Challa realizing he needed to open up Wakanda to the world and offer its benefits to others, to make amends for Wakanda’s past through peaceful outreach and support rather than armed conquest. I’m very interested in seeing the answer to the question T’Challa is asked at the end of the mid-credits scene.

The cast was really solid, excellent all around. Michael B. Jordan is a standout as Killmonger, bringing enormous charisma while still being a credible threat. Chadwick Boseman is effective in the lead. Lupita Nyong’o is very good as Nakia, and it doesn’t hurt that she’s one of the most beautiful women I’ve ever seen. (This is the first movie of hers I’ve seen where I could actually see her face.) Letitia Wright (who had a recurring role in Humans season 2 as a troubled schoolgirl pretending to be an android) is lots of fun as Shuri, and I love it how the film just takes it for granted that their resident Tony Stark-meets-Q is a teenage girl. (She has the kind of vast high-tech underground playroom that I dreamed of having as a teenager.) I was impressed by Person of Interest‘s Winston Duke as M’Baku, a character who had to be handled very, very carefully to skirt the offensive implications of his comics counterpart, the villain called “Man-Ape.” He had to start out as a convincing antagonist and then reveal a more admirable side, and he pulled it off well. Martin Freeman did his usual excellent work as Everett Ross, going from a smugly clueless American to a stalwart ally who slipped comfortably into a supporting role, rather than trying to dominate the narrative. (I’ve seen this movie compared to a James Bond film, so I guess that means Ross would be Felix Leiter.) Andy Serkis was unexpectedly impish as Ulysses Klaue, who we initially were led to think was the primary villain but who ended up being secondary to Killmonger. In the comics, Ulysses Klaw was the murderer of T’Challa’s father, but Captain America: Civil War gave T’Chaka a different fate, so that arc was transferred to T’Challa’s friend W’Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya), motivating him to turn against T’Challa and aid Killmonger. W’Kabi is a minor antagonist, but one who has a well-drawn arc and understandable motivations for doing the wrong thing.

One thing I found a bit distracting was the music, but that’s not really the movie’s fault. Before the movie, the theater showed a trailer for Spielberg’s Ready Player One, scored with a partly orchestral arrangement of the 1984 pop song “Take On Me.” (I don’t know pop music well, but I heard that song constantly on the PA at the UC Bookstore when I worked there.) Then the film came on, and the orchestral theme used for the Black Panther was exactly the same melody as the first six notes of “Take On Me”‘s refrain. So because of the trailer, every time I heard that leitmotif, I was reminded of the song. Otherwise, though, the score by Ludwig Göransson does some fairly interesting things blending African rhythms and styles with conventional orchestral movie scoring.

When I first heard that there’d be a Black Panther movie, I was concerned about how an American-made film would portray Africa, since there have been so many stereotypes and misconceptions about it in past films and TV shows. Some of the Marvel animated TV productions that have depicted Black Panther and Storm (of the X-Men) have been deeply rooted in ignorant stereotypes about Africa, tending to portray it as a single monolithic culture consisting of nothing but thatched-hut villages surrounded by wilderness. The ideal that I hoped for but wasn’t sure we’d get was a film that avoided all those assumptions and cliches, that did the research about modern Africa and portrayed it authentically. And this film essentially did fulfill my hopes. It’s certainly well-researched and rooted in real African culture rather than Western preconceptions, and it satirizes those preconceptions by contrasting them with the reality of Wakanda. Although its tight focus on the fictional nation of Wakanda means that it didn’t necessarily counter preconceptions about what the rest of Africa looks like. It would be nice, in a sequel, to see more exploration of Wakanda’s neighbors on the continent now that it’s not hiding from them anymore. Let’s see some major African metropolises like maybe Lagos, Nigeria, which is one of the largest and fastest-growing cities on Earth.

Still, that’s a minor note. Even if Black Panther doesn’t do all the work itself, its success will hopefully bring more attention to African-American voices and African culture, and perhaps other films can follow in its footsteps. (Pawprints? Sneaker prints?) That’s a change that’s long overdue, and I’m glad to see it starting to happen. Even aside from the importance of equal representation and diversity, it’s just good to have a wider range of ideas and perspectives informing popular culture, making it richer, inviting more people into the tent both as fans and creators. And it’s really satisfying to see an audience really engaged and excited by a movie like the folks around me in the theater yesterday. Black Panther, like Wonder Woman before it, was a movie that needed to knock it out of the park in order to dispel Hollywood preconceptions about what kind of films could succeed. And like Wonder Woman before it, the film met that challenge and surpassed it, and hopefully has opened a door that will never close again.

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BLADE RUNNER 2049 Review (spoilers)

My latest movie that I belatedly got from the library because I was too broke to see it in theaters was Blade Runner 2049, Dennis Villeneuve’s sequel to Ridley Scott’s 1982 sci-fi-noir classic. And it’s the second movie in a row that I’m kind of glad I didn’t spend money on. While superficially impressive, it doesn’t have a lot of satisfying substance or really add up to much.

It’s rather odd to see a 2017 movie set in 2049 that’s a sequel to a 1982 movie set in 2019. What was futurism is now alternate history. But the film basically ignores this paradox and evolves the Blade Runner world 30 years in the future through a cursory text crawl at the beginning — a backstory that was explored in a series of online shorts before the film’s release (including a fairly impressive anime segment) but is barely relevant to the film itself. For all the text exposition about the Tyrell replicants being prohibited after a revolution and a resultant technological collapse, there’s little in the film’s 2049 setting that seems like anything other than a direct continuation of the original film’s status quo. Whatever was lost in that revolution and collapse is back in place by the time of the film — replicant slaves are even more ubiquitous and programmed not to rebel, the cyberpunk techno-dystopia looks much the same but with flashier (and more R-rated) holo-ads, despite the presence of wastelands beyond, and so on. So all that background worldbuilding seemed to serve the shorts more than it served the film itself.

Which leaves the film’s own story and characters to generate interest, and I’m afraid it doesn’t do that very well. The film is certainly good to watch — the visuals would have been worth seeing on the big screen, and the tiny text of the captions would’ve been easier to read there (I had to freeze and zoom to read them on my antique TV) — and at first, I liked its slow pace, which made it feel like a film from the era of its predecessor or even earlier (think 2001: A Space Odyssey). But after a while, I started to feel it was often too slow, too overindulgently edited like so many films today are, despite the retro feel it conveyed. It didn’t really need to be 2 hours and 44 minutes long.

But on to the characters. One thing that makes this film distinct is that most of its central characters are explicitly replicants or other AIs. Human characters (other than Rick Deckard, whose true nature is left as ambiguous by this film as it’s been for the past 35 years) are secondary and basically just there to perpetuate the power structure, and the story is centrally about replicants who either support or resist their enslavement. Ryan Gosling (an actor I remember being very bad as the lead in Young Hercules 20 years ago but who’s evidently improved since then) plays Officer K, a nameless replicant who works as a blade runner, assassinating older-model Tyrell replicants that were outlawed after the rebellion. (He’s a newer Wallace-brand replicant, of the supposedly safer kind made by Jared Leto’s Niander Wallace.) Now, this is a plot hole that I didn’t realize until after the film was over. Why are there any Tyrell replicants left? What Batty and the others were fighting for in the original film was life extension beyond their planned termination at 4-5 years of age. And they didn’t get it. So how are there still Tyrell models running around 30 years later? This wasn’t explained, as far as I could tell.

So anyway, K starts out loyal, but he comes upon the lovingly buried bones of a replicant who, according to the autopsy, died in childbirth. A replicant who could reproduce is a game-changer, and K’s lieutenant, inexplicably called “Madam” (Robin Wright), wants him to destroy all evidence of it, while Wallace sees replicant procreation as a holy grail he’s been trying and failing to invent, sending his head hench-replicant Luv (Sylvia Hoeks) to find the replicant child. K begins to suspect that he is the child, and goes on a search for the mother, who turns out to be Sean Young’s Rachel from the original film, and that puts him on the trail of Deckard, who doesn’t show up until a couple of hours into the movie. For a while, it seemed that the arc about K’s identity was playing out obviously and predictably, but that turned out to be a red herring, fortunately.

The thing is, none of this is quite as interesting as the conflict in the original film. Blade Runner worked because of the complexity and ambiguity of its characters. It was basically a story about a man gradually realizing he was the villain of the story and his victims were the ones on the right side. (Well, at least in the later edits. The original version’s narration alters the meaning of the climax, which is why I didn’t like the film until I saw a later cut and realized what it was really about.) Here, we have K going through a similar arc, going from a loyal blade runner to a resistor, but it’s basically for more personal reasons. And it’s less interesting as a story because there is no ambiguity to the antagonists. Like, at all. Niander Wallace is a cartoonishly evil eccentric who shows up for 2-3 scenes, a mercifully brief exposure to Leto’s tiresomely affected acting, but hardly very interesting from a character standpoint. (He’s also blind and uses creepy hovering “fish” drones to see, which perpetuates the unfortunate cinematic cliche of equating disability with evil.) And Luv is nothing but a one-note terminator, without anything remotely interesting about her personality or motivations. She’s just programmed to obey and that’s it. Which makes it disappointing when the film’s climax comes down to K fighting Luv over Deckard’s fate in a very small, claustrophobic setting, a single skimmer surrounded by a visual void. It’s an interesting directorial choice to bring the climax in to something so small and intimate after such vast, sprawling vistas, but climaxes that close in to tight character focus are successful when we actually give a damn about the characters, ideally on both sides. The film didn’t really succeed in creating that investment, so we just get a really long fight scene that feels extremely anticlimactic because it’s utterly devoid of any emotional weight or character relevance. Even Deckard doesn’t really get enough character development in the film to become much more than a Macguffin the other characters are fighting over. There’s not much connection between Deckard here and the person he was in the original. He’s just an old guy who has a dog. (When I first saw the rather wooly-looking dog in the shadows, I wondered, “Is that a sheep?”)

It doesn’t help that the other major female character in the film, Joi (Ana de Armas), is nothing but a sex hologram programmed to act like she’s in love with K. There are times when it seems that she and K have a real relationship, but it’s made clear to the audience before too long that Joi is simply a consumer product whose primary advertised feature is that she tells her owners what they want to hear. It’s also easy to guess, since she’s a Wallace product, that the Wallace people are using her projector unit that K carries around in his pocket as a tracker.  It might’ve been a little more interesting if it had turned out, as I expected it to, that Joi was an active spy for Wallace, tracking K’s every move and manipulating him into leading Luv to the child. Instead, it just turned out that they were passively tracking her, and there was a moment when it seemed that she had enough intelligence to want K to avoid tracking, but ultimately her story just fizzled out. I can’t even say she was fridged, since her destruction didn’t really motivate any particular action or decision on K’s part. There’s a bit where K sees a giant nude ad holo of Joi and seems to realize that she was just a toy telling him what he wanted to hear, but why didn’t he know that all along? Or did he know and just convince himself otherwise because he was so lonely? It isn’t really made clear. And the film could really have stood to devote more screen time to female characters who had actual agency and goals of their own, rather than devoting the bulk of its attention to a “character” who was literally nothing more than a nonsentient sex object created to pander to male fantasies. I gather that Villeneuve has said his intent was to comment on society’s objectification of women, but it’s not that much of a commentary if you just do the same thing yourself. And all that aside, it’s just hard to invest emotionally in a major character that is not actually a self-aware being. It’s not as if the other characters have a lot of depth to make up for it.

We do learn, rather late in the game, that there’s a replicant resistance whose primary characters are both female (the old Tyrell-model leader and the sex-worker replicant who gets in close to K), but neither of them gets as much screen time as Joi or Luv. And the resistance plot is just introduced and then doesn’t really go anywhere. Like Wallace’s unresolved quest for replicant procreation, it feels like a sequel hook that’s just left dangling.

I suppose the resistance leader scene does serve the purpose of revealing to K that he isn’t the child after all, that he just has one of the child’s memories, as most Wallace replicants do. And I guess that’s important. We were told at the start that Wallace replicants were programmed to be obedient slaves, incapable of rebellion. That’s why Wallace was permitted to make them after the prohibition of Tyrell replicants. For most of the film, we were led to think that K was able to resist because he was special, because he was the child of Deckard and Rachel and thus not Wallace-made after all. But it turned out that he was just an ordinary Wallace model — yet he was still able to resist his programming and defy his orders. Which means that all replicants are able to do the same. That is kind of a big deal, but it’s left pretty much implicit. I didn’t realize it until afterward. Although it’s the one thing I realized on further reflection that had a positive impact on my reaction to the film rather than a negative one.

Honestly, the whole Macguffin of replicants that can reproduce like humans — or rather, the premise that they’re this amazing rarity — seems implausible. Why is reproduction so hard for Wallace to emulate? If you can create something as incredibly complex as sentient thought, mere cell replication doesn’t seem that difficult in comparison. Other than that, though, if we just stipulate to the premise, I can see why it’s a big deal; for replicants, it means they don’t need human help to reproduce and can be free, while Wallace sees it as a way to expand the size of his slave force and accelerate his business empire’s spread across the stars (something only talked about and never shown — but is implied to have expanded far more than is plausible in just 30 years). But given what the film implies about replicants’ ability to resist, doesn’t that mean that Wallace is doomed to failure anyway? Not because of any hero’s actions, but because he mistakenly wants to give his own slaves the very power that would give them their independence from him? Even if he acted unopposed, he would still ultimately lose through his own actions (although he would kill Deckard and the child in the process). Which is another thing that undermines him as a villain. Ultimately, the main characters’ actions have little impact on anything except the personal. If anything, keeping the reproductive knowledge from Wallace just prolongs replicant enslavement.

All in all, then, Blade Runner 2049 is a sequel that does a reasonably effective job capturing and building on the visual style and feel of the original film and its world, but whose story doesn’t really carry much weight and whose characters are largely ciphers. It’s an impressive surface over weak substance, like far too many modern movies. By itself, it would’ve been an adequate and beautifully made cyber-noir thriller. But it falls well short of being a classic like its predecessor.

PROFESSOR MARSTON and the Blundered Biopic (spoilers)

Last night I finally got around to watching Professor Marston and the Wonder Women, last year’s biopic based on the life story of Wonder Woman creator William Moulton Marston, his wife and collaborator Elizabeth, and their (reputed) polyamorous partner Olive Byrne. I’ve rarely been so disappointed by a biographical film, although it’s not a genre I’m that much into. I was intrigued by the trailers and the early descriptions, and I liked the idea of the smash-hit Wonder Woman movie being accompanied by a movie that explored the life of Wonder Woman’s creators. Unfortunately, though, the movie badly misrepresents the work of the Marstons, both in science and in comics, in a way that shows a gross failure of research and lack of respect for the legacy of the people the film is supposed to be paying tribute to.

Professor Marston focuses mainly on the development of the trio’s polyamorous love story and exploration of bondage and kink, framed by a sequence of Marston defending Wonder Woman to some sort of public morality league, but the love story is often rather maudlin, as the movie spends so much time focusing on the characters wrestling with guilt and shame about their unconventional feelings and interests that it undermines the portrayal of their eventual embrace of those things and of each other, since they keep backtracking with every setback and have a new argument over the morality of what they’re doing. They’re so constantly shown as unhappy and in conflict that it’s often hard to figure out exactly why they’re in love in the first place. Rebecca Hall gives the best performance of the trio as Elizabeth (Luke Evans as William and Bella Heathcote as Olive are okay but unremarkable), but she also has to play the most neurotic and unlikeable character, and I don’t think Elizabeth is well-served by the film for all its effort to highlight her role as William’s partner in his work.

The first half is set in the late 1920s and focuses on the Marstons meeting Olive and gradually, mutually falling in love while working on the invention of what the film exclusively calls a “lie detector.” This is wrong on multiple levels. First, Marston did not invent the polygraph, the device vernacularly known as a “lie detector.” He developed a blood pressure reader that was later integrated into the polygraph by its actual inventor John Augustus Larson, all of which happened well before the time frame shown in the movie. Marston would go on to popularize the idea that the polygraph was useful as a “lie detector,” but that’s about the extent of his connection to it. It’s also a claim that has never been scientifically verified and is basically pseudoscience. In practice, polygraph readings are one factor taken into account by an interviewer who assesses the subject’s reactions over the course of several hours of observation, and are generally just used to support the conclusions the interviewers draw from their own assessment of the subject (which means that interviewer bias can give false results). Yet the movie embraces a cartoonish, cliched portrayal of the “lie detector” as a magic instrument that gives an infallible, instant true/false result for every single question. It’s simplistic and dumb and it lends an absurd quality to the scenes where the Marstons and Byrne use the device on each other to force each other to admit their feelings, even aside from the ethical quagmire of doing such a thing in the course of scientific research.

The early scenes of the trio getting to know each other are okay, but a lot of the dialogue is just big infodumps about the characters’ backstories, notably Olive Byrne being the niece of feminist icon Margaret Sanger. It’s well enough acted out, but it feels clumsy at times.

The film then races through the trio losing their jobs due to the scandal of their relationship and having multiple children together in their new lives while passing Olive off as a friend of the family, then eventually gets into the creation of Wonder Woman about a dozen years after the first half. The film screws this up as badly as the “lie detector” stuff. It shows Marston creating “Suprema the Wonder Woman” entirely on his own, inspired by a bondage getup that Olive puts on during the trio’s hesitant experimentation with the illegal, underground bondage community, then explaining it to the women with a bunch of crude pencil drawings, then taking it to a skeptical M.C. Gaines (publisher of the future DC Comics) and trying to win him over. In reality, Gaines saw an article by Marston about the educational potential of comics, then sought him out and hired him as an educational consultant. Marston wanted to create a kinder, gentler superhero who used the principles of loving submission that he believed in, but it was Elizabeth who suggested making the character female. So having the movie’s William make that decision on his own and try to sell it to a skeptical Elizabeth is robbing Elizabeth of one of her most important legacies. Also, Wonder Woman’s costume was created by Harry G. Peter, the original artist on the Wonder Woman comics. The movie completely excludes Peter from the narrative, and the substitute origin of Olive’s randomly assembled bondage costume is laughably corny, for all that it’s presented as this solemn, magical moment of epiphany. The film takes the established fact that the bracelets Olive often wore were cited by Marston as an inspiration for Wonder Woman’s bullet-deflecting bracelets and exaggerates it to give her credit for the entire ensemble.

Oh, another factual inaccuracy resulting from sloppy research: The frame story has Marston and his interrogator discuss Wonder Woman’s lasso that compels people to tell the truth. In fact, under Marston, the lasso compelled obedience. It was just part of the overall bondage/domination fetish element of the comics. It didn’t really start to become a tool for compelling the truth specifically until the Lynda Carter TV series in the ’70s, and it wasn’t formally redefined as “the Lasso of Truth” until the 1987 George Perez reboot. The idea that “Hey, the guy who ‘invented’ the lie detector also gave Wonder Woman a magic lie detector” is an appealing story to modern audiences, but it’s pure myth. This is typical of the laziness of this movie. It uncritically embraces every bit of present-day pop myth and assumption about Marston and Wonder Woman and lie detectors and the rest and makes no effort to correct any of it.

The film does a decent job acknowledging the broad strokes of William Marston’s beliefs in female superiority and the importance of loving submission, but it fumbles in some ways. When the moral-guardian interrogator complains about the “bondage and violence” in the comics, the film’s William doesn’t refute the characterization, even though it goes straight to one of the most crucial parts of the real Marston’s thinking. The justification he offered for the heavy use of bondage in his Wonder Woman comics was that it was a non-violent way to put characters in peril, a more palatable alternative to the gunplay and fisticuffs in other comics. The film’s frame sequence mentions none of this. And the frame has a laughably melodramatic resolution that feels like a spoof of overly melodramatic biopic climaxes, with his fury at the interrogation triggering a collapse and hospitalization that leads to his eventual death. He died of cancer a couple of years later, but the movie tries to suggest that it was the injustice of how he was treated that somehow killed him. Or something. It’s pretty corny, whatever it is.

Even the “where are they now” text at the end of the film is incredibly sloppy with the truth. It says that Marston died in 1947 and Wonder Woman therefore lost her bondage elements and her powers, until Gloria Steinem complained in the early 1970s and her powers were restored. That’s grossly misleading. Yes, in the wake of Marston’s death, Wonder Woman comics lost both their bondage elements and their feminism, with the writing being taken over by the deeply sexist Robert Kanigher and her stories coming to be focused mainly on Wonder Woman’s romantic life and “imaginary story” adventures with her own younger incarnations Wonder Girl and Wonder Tot. But she still had her superpowers and her costume throughout the 20-plus years of Kanigher’s run on the comic. The revamp in which Diana Prince lost her powers (which I discussed on this blog back in 2013) came in 1968, two decades after Marston’s death, and was actually a revival of the long-lost feminist element of the character, the idea being that it was more empowering to women to show that Diana could still be a great hero even without a supernatural advantage over men.

In short, Professor Marston bears only the most superficial resemblance to the true story it’s based on, taking a few fragments of fact and blatantly ignoring or distorting others in order to construct an essentially fictitious narrative. There’s nothing wrong with a biopic taking some liberties with the facts in order to symbolically get across the essence of who its subjects were and what they achieved. But too many of this film’s liberties are egregiously dishonest or ill-researched and undermine or misrepresent the true achievements and legacy of the people it depicts. Even as a work of fiction, it’s rather unfocused and pretentious, and often feels as if it’s just tossing around known elements of the Marstons’ life (or of the mythology that’s grown up around them, since the film doesn’t care about the distinction) without having any real point to make about them. I suppose it’s trying to tell a story about people who feel unconventional love and struggle toward acceptance of themselves despite society’s condemnation, but the portrayal and resolution of those struggles often seem superficial, and the attempt to juxtapose them with the badly misrepresented details of the Marstons’ professional accomplishments is clumsy and gets in the way of exploring those themes. Everything about the relationship is filtered through “Hey, look, this is the origin of this or that part of the Wonder Woman comics,” so the fact that the portrayal of the comics’ creative process is so sloppy and unconcerned with reality undermines the relationship parts as well. Ultimately, the pieces just don’t fit together. And it’s frustrating that a movie whose main characters are purportedly driven by the lifelong quest for truth and honesty has so much contempt for the truth.

Biographical films often have trouble working as coherent narratives because real life doesn’t work like a story. But Professor Marston and the Wonder Women has such complete disregard for the real facts of its subjects’ lives and work that it has no such excuse for its shortcomings as a work of fiction. It’s a shame, since I really wanted to like this film.

I finally saw STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI (spoilers)

January 24, 2018 3 comments

I finally got a bit of money for a writing project this week, so I decided to celebrate by finally going to see Star Wars: The Last Jedi while it was still in theaters, and before I got spoiled on more than I already have been (which fortunately was mostly little things). I gather that the film has generated some controversy, but it sounded like the aspects that were making a stir were the sort of things that I’d enjoy. And I was right. I can’t remember the last time I’ve felt so happy and fulfilled at the end of a movie. I’m not even that big a Star Wars fan — or at least I wasn’t in the past except to the degree that it’s been an ongoing part of my pop-culture awareness since I was 8 years old — but the recent iterations of the franchise, both theatrically and on TV, have been really well-done and have given me new appreciation for it. And The Last Jedi is probably the best installment yet. It was moving in ways a Star Wars movie has never been before (not that they’ve never been moving, just not in these specific ways). It was unpredictable in a good way, full of surprises and plot developments that didn’t “go the way you think.” It was one of the darkest, most tragic SW movies and one of the most optimistic and inspiring ones at the same time. Its action scenes were brilliant and innovative and remarkable. It was funny, sometimes a bit goofily so, but often quite cleverly. And it managed to hit all the nostalgia buttons perfectly while simultaneously challenging and deconstructing all the pat assumptions of the prior films’ heroic narratives.

If I have a problem with it, it’s that there’s simply too much going on, with all the lead characters separated on their own individual subplots for most of the film, only coming together at the climax. It’s kind of wild to realize that two of the central new heroes, Rey and Poe, never actually meet until very near the end of the second film out of three. And there were times when one or two subplots had been going on for so long that I found myself wondering, “Okay, when do we get back to Rey?” or whoever.

But most of the cast does get a lot of great stuff to do, individually or in pairs. It’s great to see Mark Hamill playing Luke Skywalker again as a mature actor, bringing much more nuance and depth and that superb voice to the role. Luke here is basically the character Obi-Wan probably should have been in the original, or might have been if what we later learned of his story had been established from the start — a scarred and bitter ex-Jedi who resists teaching a new student because of his failure with his last student who turned to evil. As it is, he shares that reluctance more with Yoda, and comes across as a more Yoda-like figure in both his eccentric, hermit-like lifestyle and his teachings about the nature of the Force. (There’s even a bit of a Dagobah callback with his X-wing being submerged once again.) Maybe that’s why it’s Yoda’s Force ghost who appears to him on Ahch-To, because of that affinity. I have to say, it was a thrill to see the return of the real Yoda, the latex puppet with a puckish sense of humor, rather than the solemn CGI sage from the prequels.

As for Rey, her interaction with Luke is effective, but it’s her bond with Kylo Ren through the Force that’s really intriguing. The way the two of them connect and try to win each other over, not through big noisy saber fights or grandiose speechmaking but through understated interpersonal bonding, is really intriguing and effective, and it shows how much this series has matured from its pulpy beginnings. It went to an unexpected place, too. Both Rey and the audience were led to expect that it would play out like the legend of Luke and Vader yet again, the heroic Jedi turning the Sith apprentice back to the light and leading him to betray his master. And it felt that way until the very end of their big, brilliantly choreographed fight with Snoke’s guards — and then Kylo pulled the rug out of all our assumptions and we realized that Rey, and we, had completely misinterpreted the future she’d seen. That’s deft. The revelation about Rey’s parentage also does a neat job of deconstructing the stock “Chosen One” narrative. Kylo literally says she’s got no special place in this story, that she’s just a random girl. And I love that. I don’t want every story to be about dynasties, hereditary lines of people who are somehow more important than everyone else. What the Resistance is fighting for, and what this film shows really well, is that everyone is important. A hero can be anyone from the big legendary mystical knight-sage to some random bomber tech or pipe jockey or a little slave boy cleaning a stable.

Poe clashing with Leia and Holdo and having to learn the downside of being a macho hotshot space jockey was effective, but it was Carrie Fisher as Leia who really stole the show, and it makes me so sad that we’ll never get the third film that was supposed to focus on her as much as The Force Awakens focused on Han and this one did on Luke. Still, it helps that Leia has so many other strong, rich heroines to follow in her footsteps now, rather than being unique. And this movie did give her a hell of a swan song. It sure faked us out that she was going to be killed off early in the movie — and then just as it had started to sink in emotionally that she was gone, we got that amazing moment that finally, finally answered the question of whether Leia can use the Force, and in the most superheroic-looking way possible. It’s been a long time coming, but wow, what a payoff.

Finn’s little side trip to Canto Bight with Rose Tico was fun too. I’ve seen reviewers call it one of the weaker parts of the film, a sidebar that slows things down, but it was actually really important, because it was the part of the film that did the most to explore just what it is the Resistance is actually fighting for. As Rose said at the climax, it’s not just about destroying, but protecting. That’s a really important statement. I also liked how this and the later Crait sequence revolved around animals, around connecting with nature and listening to it, as the path to success. It reminds me of the sort of thing Star Wars Rebels is doing with the Loth-wolves. Plus the creature designs for the horselike Fathiers and the catlike, crystalline Vulptices were really good. The Porgs were okay, too.

Oh, plus the Finn subplot ends up giving Captain Phasma the big moment she was deprived of in TFA. We finally get some payoff for all the setup for her character, with Finn getting a final battle with her as his personal archnemesis, and getting to deliver a pretty cool hero line at the end there.

The first really wow-inducing scene in the movie is Paige Tico’s sacrifice in the bomber. That’s a very different way of depicting a Star Wars action scene, really focusing on the heroism of one of the background rebels who are usually treated as faceless cannon fodder. We never really learn anything about her beyond her determination and self-sacrifice, but in a way that’s all we need to know, and her action drives a lot of what follows by motivating her sister Rose, without whom Finn would’ve deserted and the plan to shut down the hyperspace tracker would never have been formulated. (I was so moved by Paige’s heroism that I didn’t even stop to wonder how dropping bombs could possibly work in weightless space.) The sacrifice of Vice Admiral Holdo later in the film is also one of the most powerful moments, and the way the effect of her action is depicted visually and acoustically is extraordinary. It’s notable that both women’s quiet, powerful, almost unwitnessed acts of self-sacrifice are in contrast to Poe Dameron’s pursuit of the more conventional, flashy, masculine hotshot fighter hero narrative, are ultimately more effective than his efforts, and are arguably the avoidable result of his arrogance, certainly in the former case.

Not that this film is lacking for flashiness. I’ve already praised the fight choreography in the throne room, and the idea of setting the Crait battle on a salt plain makes for some inspired and unique visuals, even if they did have to toss in a slightly stilted bit of a random soldier commenting on the salt for the audience’s benefit. It also allowed for a subtle clue about Luke’s climactic trickery, which is one of the things I was spoiled on in advance, so I was able to notice a certain lack of footprints.

John Williams’s score was great too. TFA’s score didn’t stand out to me the first time I saw it, though I noticed its character themes more on a second viewing, and I’ve really come to like Rey’s theme. But this was a really strong and impressive score. Like so much else about the film, it did a great job balancing novelty and nostalgia, bringing back all the familiar themes from past movies and combining them with effective new motifs.

I really love the way this film managed to balance two things that might seem contradictory — honoring the past and the nostalgic elements that bring us back to Star Wars again and again, and taking a critical look at the franchise’s past assumptions, deconstructing their simplicity, and responding to them with a more thoughtful and nuanced point of view. Perhaps that’s because the deconstructions don’t invalidate what came before — they just show that it’s only a small part of something bigger and more complicated. To really honor the positive values and the spirit of hope that the heroes of Star Wars fight for, and to understand the stakes and the cost of their fight, you have to look beyond some of the more superficial elements like the traditional action cliches and Chosen One narratives. And the more traditional aspects of the stories and their newer elements can come together harmoniously, as Leia did with Poe, and as Finn did with Rose.

It’s that harmonious blending of old and new elements that makes The Last Jedi so intensely satisfying, because it fulfilled both the part of me that thrilled at nostalgia for the characters and adventures of my childhood and the part of me that needs something fresher, more adult, and more thought-provoking. Rian Johnson really pulled off a remarkable balance here.

Revisiting YOUNG SHERLOCK HOLMES (spoilers)

September 24, 2017 1 comment

I decided to check Barry Levinson’s 1985 film Young Sherlock Holmes out of the library, partly because of my recent watch-through of the Basil Rathbone Holmes series, but mainly because I recently re-listened to my LP of Bruce Broughton’s terrific score for the film, which used to be one of my favorite and most often played LPs. (Yes, I still have a phonograph and a small collection of LPs that I haven’t yet replaced with CDs. But I only occasionally get around to listening to them.) I remembered having a moderately positive opinion of the film, though a lot of that was no doubt due to the score. I’m afraid my revisit left me somewhat underwhelmed.

Levinson is known for dramas like Diner, The Natural, Good Morning, Vietnam, and Rain Man, but Young Sherlock Holmes was his venture into more fantastic ’80s blockbuster territory, in a film produced by Steven Spielberg and written by future Home Alone/Harry Potter director Chris Columbus. The film (whose opening titles directly homage the Rathbone series) postulates that Sherlock Holmes and John Watson first met at a London boarding school in their adolescence — something that a caption at the end of the film admits is merely an extracanonical speculation, since the filmmakers didn’t wish to offend Holmes purists. It’s just as well, though, since there’s a lot about the movie that doesn’t really fit that well with Holmes canon, either factually or stylistically.

Holmes is played by Nicholas Rowe, a narrow-faced, sleepy-eyed actor who looks more like a young Tom Baker than a young Holmes (although Baker played Holmes in a 1982 Hound of the Baskervilles miniseries, his first post-Doctor Who role). Rowe is a bit too understated in the role, but reasonably effective considering he was around 18 at the time. Watson is played by Alan Cox (then about 15 years old), who’s okay but doesn’t make a huge impression. This Watson is pretty much in the Nigel Bruce vein, a relatively slow-witted comic-relief figure (albeit the same age as Holmes instead of significantly older) — indeed, Holmes calls him quite harsh things like “buffoon” on occasion, even though their interaction is played as friendly. But Watson does get a couple of moments to shine — one point where he devises a clever if contrived way to save Holmes from a fire and stop the villain’s escape at the same time, and a bit at the end where he finally solves a riddle Holmes posed early in the movie.

The charming Sophie Ward (2 years Rowe’s senior) plays Holmes’s love interest Elizabeth — since this Holmes is more open and emotional than he became later in life, and the film purports to explore what events caused him to close off. Elizabeth’s uncle (or guardian?) is the eccentric Professor Waxflatter, a mentor of Holmes who’s established to be the source of his deerstalker cap and the “Elementary, my dear ___” catchphrase used by most prior cinematic versions of Holmes. He’s also a rather goofy character who keeps trying to invent a working ornithopter, one of the primary sources of Spielberg-style visual spectacle in the film. Even granting that this was a film largely aimed at young viewers, giving Holmes a mentor figure this cartoonish seems incongruous. And perhaps redundant, since Holmes has a second mentor in fencing instructor Rathe (Anthony Higgins), who’s his intellectual match and urges him not to give into his emotions so much.

The other source of visual spectacle comes from the villains, the Cult of Rame Tep, who use blowgun darts to inject their victims with hallucinogens that give them terrifying visions that drive them to their deaths. The visions are the primary visual-effects sequences in the film, generally using puppetry and stop-motion animation to create the horrific creatures the victims envision — yet the film is notable for featuring the first ever use of computer animation to create a photorealistic motion picture character, more or less, when a priest hallucinates a stained-glass knight coming to life and trying to kill him. The digital animation was done by a division of Lucasfilm known as Pixar, under the supervision of an animator named John Lasseter. You might have heard of one or two later things they did.

I suppose the hallucinogen gimmick was a reasonable way to include fantasy FX sequences in a Sherlock Holmes movie without breaking its reality, but in execution it doesn’t really work. The idea is supposed to be that the victims are all scared to death, basically, but they keep dying in rather contrived and implausible ways. The first victim jumps out a window when he thinks his room is on fire — okay. But the second, the priest, just runs out into a mostly empty road and just happens to run right in front of the single oncoming carriage at just the right moment to get trampled. And when Waxflatter hallucinates monsters attacking him and climbing inside his waistcoat, he just happens to be in a shop containing large knives and picks up one to stab himself in the chest. Seriously? This seems like a very unreliable form of murder. There’s no way to predict what will be hallucinated or how the person will respond. Any of them could’ve been spared by luck — say, if the priest had run out into the road ten seconds earlier or later. There’s a bit where Detective Sergeant Lestrade (Roger Ashton-Griffiths) accidentally pokes himself with a poison thorn Holmes has recovered, then later reports that the men of Scotland Yard had to stop him from hanging himself. Okay, why would hallucinating a terrifying attack drive him to attempt hanging himself? The implication was that the drug made one suicidal, but then shouldn’t it evoke despair rather than terror?

Also, how come nobody who’s hit by one of the thorns is aware of the fact? We see in the Lestrade scene that Holmes has recovered several thorns that are of easily visible size — presumably the ones that the cultists had hit him, Watson, and Elizabeth with in an earlier sequence. So how come none of the other victims finds the thorn upon slapping a hand to their neck? There’s even a scene later on where another victim is struck by a thorn while Holmes watches and dismisses it as just an insect bite, with Holmes unbelievably failing to notice what really happened.

Still, the sequence where Holmes is struck by a thorn is one of the most interesting, since his hallucination involves his father’s rejection and his mother’s grief after his inquisitive nature uncovered his father’s compromising secret, implicitly an affair. It seems more an actual source of guilt than a conjectural fear, and it makes me think we’re missing a more interesting story about Holmes’s childhood than the one we’re getting. Meanwhile, poor Watson just gets a comedy hallucination where cartoonish, anthropomorphic stop-motion pastries force him to eat them, which — what? Not very revealing.

The other big source of spectacle comes from the fact that the cultists have built an underground faux pyramid/temple in London, where they do a bunch of chanting and sacrifice young women for nebulous reasons. The Rame Tep chant is the musical highlight of the film for me, a potent pastiche of Orff’s Carmina Burana with an Egyptian twist. But the cultist angle is kind of silly, particularly the cult’s main assassin, the school nurse who turns out to be a shaven-headed female cultist (Susan Fleetwood). Rathe turns out to be the cult’s leader, a half-English Egyptian named Eh-tar (Rathe backward) seeking revenge on the men who desecrated his cult’s temple and called in British troops that destroyed his parents’ village. (American movies and TV shows have a bad habit of assuming that Egypt is still full of cults worshipping the ancient gods, even though it’s been a Muslim country for nearly 1400 years.)

The movie climaxes with a battle between Holmes and Rathe in a location that I’ve only now realized is meant to be the docks along the frozen River Thames. I knew it was an iced-over body of water, but I never knew where it was supposed to be before. I guess I owe it to Doctor Who: “Thin Ice” for depicting the frozen Thames and giving me the context I’d been missing. Rathe is defeated and seemingly dies below the ice, but not before he shoots and fatally wounds Elizabeth, the tragedy that supposedly turned Holmes into a solitary, closed-off adult with no interest in women. It’s a classic fridging that doesn’t hold up well today, a female lead being created specifically so that she can die to motivate the male hero. And in light of more modern portrayals of Holmes and insights into the autistic spectrum, it seems naive to assume that there would need to be an instigating event to explain why Holmes acted the way he did, something that changed him from a more “normal” way of acting. At the time, it wasn’t an unreasonable idea, I suppose. But it feels like a relic of an earlier era.

Indeed, this film came out just months after the end of the first series of Granada Television’s landmark Holmes adaptations starring Jeremy Brett, which were notable for being more faithful to the original canon than most prior screen adaptations and downplaying or avoiding a lot of the standard screen tropes like the deerstalker, “Elementary, my dear Watson, elementary,” and most of all the characterization of Watson as a buffoon. Yet Young Sherlock Holmes gleefully embraced all those tropes. Which might’ve been fine if it had come out a year or two earlier, but in the wake of the Brett series, it must have felt like a throwback as soon as it came out.

The end of the film is a bit notable for having a post-credits tag scene, something less common then than today, although they set it up by having film footage continue under the entire end credits. The tag, perhaps predictably, is that Rathe has survived and signs his name in a hotel ledger as “Moriarty.” I guess it had to happen, given how determined the movie was to explain the origin of everything else in Holmes canon.

All in all, a watchable film with a decent cast and good production values, but conceptually somewhat weak and trying a bit too hard to turn Sherlock Holmes into something in the vein of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and The Goonies. It might be worthy of curiosity for foreshadowing Chris Columbus’s involvement with the Harry Potter franchise, since there are similarities in the English boarding school setting and the focus on a lead trio of two boys and a girl. But that’s kind of a tenuous link, and surely coincidental. Anyway, I feel the Potter films Columbus directed are by far the weakest and most prosaic in the franchise, so I’m not surprised to find his writing rather underwhelming as well. Still, I strongly recommend Bruce Broughton’s soundtrack.

Whatever the flaws in Young Sherlock Holmes, it was always my hope that one day we’d get to see the grown-up Rowe and Cox reunite as Holmes and Watson, whether in a Spielberg-produced sequel to YSH or just some other Holmes production. I gather this almost happened a few years ago with a low-budget production called Sherlock Holmes vs. Frankenstein, but apparently the crowdfunded film has not actually been completed yet and the plan to cast Rowe and Cox fell through. Rowe did, however, make a brief cameo in the Ian McKellen film Mr. Holmes, playing a cinematic version of Holmes that the elderly genuine article watched in the theater. And Rowe and Cox are currently around 51 and 47 respectively, around the ages that Rathbone and Bruce would’ve been in the first couple of years of the Universal series (yes, Bruce was actually a few years younger than Rathbone, though he looked much older). So maybe it could still happen someday.

Thoughts on LIFE (the 2017 film, not, y’know, the general state of existence) (spoilers)

After growing up with countless sci-fi films and TV shows that totally ignored the fact that the “sci” was short for “science,” I’ve been quite pleased with the trend in recent years to make more movies that are grounded in plausible science, such as Gravity, Europa Report, Interstellar, and The Martian. The movie Life, directed by Daniel Espinoza and written by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, is the latest entry in the hard-science movie trend, and is mostly quite impressive. It’s set on the International Space Station in the near future (very near, since a character played by 36-year-old Jake Gyllenhaal reminisces about being taken out of school on the day of the Challenger disaster 31 years ago), with its 6-person international crew studying a single-celled life form brought back by a Mars sample probe. Dubbed “Calvin,” the Martian organism quickly grows into a multicellular colony creature of great adaptability, and when things inevitably go wrong, the creature breaks out and it becomes a horror movie.

The science and realism in Life are top-notch. Espinoza and his team consulted with scientists and space experts to make the ISS environment as realistic as possible. It’s quite remarkable — like Gravity, it’s set almost entirely in free fall, but with six actors instead of two and with much more time spent in shirtsleeve environments within the ISS rather than in spacesuits. And the simulation of free fall is quite good. There are a couple of moments here and there where body parts or worn/held items sag downward, but mostly it’s very convincing. The filmmakers studied real ISS footage and consulted with astronauts, and the stunt team and actors worked out a very convincing replication of the real thing, more casual and natural than the stock “move very slowly” approach to weightlessness we’ve seen in countless movies before. It makes for a very novel and engaging viewing experience. The Calvin creature is also quite a creative design, convincingly unlike anything on Earth (well, almost anything — apparently the designers were inspired by slime mold colonies to an extent). And for the most part, it doesn’t really feel like a horror movie with a fanciful monster. It’s so grounded that it just feels like a drama about scientists dealing with an animal (albeit an alien one) that’s gotten out of control. The main scientist who studies the creature (Hugh, played by Ariyon Bakare) points out, even after being badly injured by Calvin, that it’s just following its instinct to survive and bears no malice.

Character-wise, I think the movie does a good job. The characters have a good mix of personalities, but they’re all played as professionals who know how to stay calm under pressure. There are some moments when they give into fear or anger, but then they get it together and work the problem. Ryan Reynolds is maybe a bit exaggerated as the standard cocky, wiseass space guy, not unlike George Clooney’s Gravity character, but he has some good moments — especially one where he’s in the lab with the escaped creature and Gyllenhaal’s character slams the hatch shut with him inside. Reynolds meets his eyes for a moment, then just nods and says “Yeah,” a quiet, almost casual acknowledgment that he did the right thing and is forgiven. Rebecca Ferguson is pretty solid as the “planetary protection officer,” the designer of the “firewalls” meant to prevent contamination between the humans and any alien life. She’s the one who bears the most responsibility for the steps that must be taken when the creature escapes, steps that the crew members know they might not survive, and Ferguson bears that weight with convincing professionalism. Hiroyuki Sanada and Olga Dihovichnaya round out the cast effectively, though they didn’t make too strong an impression on me. I do wish the cast had been a bit more diverse, and though they faked us out and nicely averted the “black guy dies first” cliche, we did still end up with two white actors, Ferguson and Gyllenhaal, as the last survivors. Still, it does better on the diversity front than Interstellar did.

But what damaged the film for me was its very ending. Major spoilers here: In the climax, we’re made to believe that the final plan to keep the creature from reaching Earth is succeeding, but enough deliberate ambiguity is created that it could go either way, and it isn’t until the final minute that we get the shock reveal that, no, the plan failed and the creature made it to Earth, implicitly dooming humanity. That downer ending left me with a very disheartened feeling. Okay, having the good guys lose is often what defines a horror movie, but I didn’t care for it at all here. This wasn’t the kind of horror movie where the characters are idiot teenagers making stupid decisions so you can feel they deserved what they got. This was a movie where good people made smart and brave decisions that should’ve worked, where they were heroically willing to sacrifice themselves in order to protect humanity as a whole, so having them ultimately fail to defend the Earth feels nihilistic, like it invalidates all their skill and sacrifice and renders everything we’ve seen pointless. It also plays into an anti-science mentality, the old Luddite idea that exploration can only bring ruin. I’ve never cared for that. One thing I liked about Europa Report was that, even though the outcome was tragic, the crew’s efforts still achieved something positive by advancing human knowledge, that their sacrifice served a noble purpose. By comparison, this ending left me with a very hollow and bitter feeling.

Also, in retrospect, Calvin was too superpowerful, too smart and too capable of overcoming everything the characters did to contain or kill it. As believable as the first two acts of the film were, it started to push the limits of credibility in the third act, both where Calvin’s abilities were concerned and in the contrivances necessary to create the climactic situation. There’s even a point where Calvin actively tries to stop Gyllenhaal from doing something that would keep it from reaching Earth, even though there’s no possible way the creature could’ve known enough about orbital physics to know the danger it was in or enough about spacecraft engineering to know how to avert it. Up to then, most everything Calvin managed to do was reasonably credible, but this broke the logic of the story and gave the creature magical omniscience in order to force a shock ending, and I just don’t buy it. The movie should not have ended this way, not just from an optimism standpoint, but from a basic plot logic standpoint. I guess that’s part of why it feels so wrong and frustrating to me — because it was forced rather than earned.

In sum, Life is mostly a very good, smart, believable movie with a sense of wonder (though with a terribly dull title), but the ending really hurts it.

Thoughts on the Rathbone/Bruce Sherlock Holmes films, Part 3 (spoilers)

September 2, 2017 7 comments

Concluding my reviews of the Universal Sherlock Holmes series starring Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce:

The Woman in Green (’45): This one is darker in tone than the last few, and opens with an odd bit of narration directed at the audience (as opposed to the previous film, where the opening narration was being directed to Holmes and Watson by the man requesting their help). The narrator is Inspector Gregson (Matthew Boulton), making his sole appearance in the Rathbone series — perhaps because the comic-relief Lestrade was inappropriate for a story about a Jack the Ripper-style crime spree in which women are being murdered by someone who cuts off their right “forefingers” (aka index fingers). Holmes and Gregson discuss the case at an upscale club where they observe Sir George Fenwick (Paul Cavanagh in his third role in the series) with an attractive blonde woman in what I have to assume is a green outfit (the dialogue never specifies and the film’s in black-and white — nor is her wardrobe ever relevant to the story, making this a fairly random title). The woman, Lydia Marlowe (Hillary Brooke, previously a military driver in The Voice of Terror and the Musgrave heiress in S.H. Faces Death), takes him home, sets a relaxing mood, and speaks to him in a hypnotic tone… and then he awakes in a dive hotel the next morning with a dead woman’s severed finger in his pocket! He goes back to Lydia to ask what happened, and is confronted by a debonair blackmailer. When his daughter later calls in Holmes to help with his troubling behavior, they find him shot in the back, clutching a matchbook from the club where Holmes saw him with the mystery woman.

Holmes realizes the murders are being done merely to set up blackmail victims by planting the fingers on them — and only one criminal mastermind is diabolical enough for such a scheme. That’s right, it’s the third and final appearance of Professor Moriarty, and no sooner does Holmes voice his suspicion than Moriarty, the blackmailer we saw before, lures Watson away and pays a call on Holmes. This time, he’s played by Henry Daniell, who’s noticeably younger than the previous two Moriartys, George Zucco and Lionel Atwill. There’s no continuity with previous films, or perhaps there was an unchronicled case between films, since Watson believes the professor was hanged in Montevideo the year before. Anyway, the Holmes/Moriarty interaction is less achingly polite and more brief and hostile than before, in part because the two geniuses know each other so well that they don’t even need to have the conversation out loud. (This is based on their exchange in “The Final Problem.”) Daniell makes an effectively chilling Moriarty, but in a colder, less genteel way than his predecessors, so that kind of civil interplay doesn’t suit him as well.

Anyway, there’s soon an attempt on Holmes’s life which Holmes avoids using the old “decoy bust of Caesar silhouetted in the window” trick, loosely based on the gambit from “The Adventure of the Empty House.” (Rathbone points to his aquiline nasal bridge and remarks that “Throughout history, prominent men have had prominent noses.” As the bearer of a somewhat Roman nose myself, I appreciated that.) He and Watson discover the sniper to be deeply hypnotized, giving Holmes the key to the murders. The woman in green must be a hypnotist! This leads them to a society of hypnotists (recommended to Holmes by his brother Mycroft, mentioned here for the only time in the series) where Dr. Watson is put through a predictable comic-relief scenario, but the woman shows up to entice Holmes into a trap set by Moriarty. Playing on his curiosity, she lures him home and offers to hypnotize him, though since he’s a “difficult subject,” she offers him an herbal sedative, a fictitious “Oriental drug” that the screenwriters rather amusingly named “Cannabis japonica.” So she’s basically giving him weed. Once he’s under, Moriarty appears and commands him to write a suicide note and jump off the roof — but of course he was faking until Watson and the cops would show up. Of course, Moriarty tries to escape arrest and falls to his death for the third time in three appearances. Come on, guys, I know he canonically went over Reichenbach Falls, but this is getting repetitive. (Also… He keeps dying and coming back with a different face, sometimes a younger one. Is Moriarty a Time Lord? Maybe he actually is the Master!)

A fairly good one, effectively moody and intense, aside from Watson’s hypnotic humiliation. It does rely a bit too much on coincidence and convenient timing, with Holmes just happening to see the culprit and her victim together, and Moriarty just happening to show up mere minutes after Holmes reveals his suspicion of the prof’s involvement. Interesting change of pace, though, to see Holmes pursue a suspect by romancing her.

Pursuit to Algiers (’45): Interestingly enough, though this is the first Universal Holmes film to come out after World War II, it’s also the first since the initial three to have a storyline involving international intrigue. But the escapism of the past few films is still in effect. Even though the war would still most likely have been ongoing at the time of production, the story deals with an imaginary nation called Rovinia and its internal intrigue, with Holmes taking the case due to vague platitudes about the cause of world democracy. WWII isn’t even mentioned.

Before that, though, we see Holmes and Watson preparing for a fishing vacation, and this time it isn’t in service to a scheme as in The Spider Woman. This seemed out of character to me, given Holmes’s known lack of interest in anything unrelated to crime, but on further exploration, I find that there are references to Holmes enjoying fishing in “The ‘Gloria Scott'” and “The Adventure of Shoscombe Old Place.” So if it’s an inconsistency, it falls on Doyle rather than Universal. (Well, perhaps he enjoys fishing because it gives him time to think.) In any event, he’s lured into the case by a very convoluted series of messages that pretty much required recruiting an entire tavern worth of performers and several men on the street, which seems to rather defeat the purpose of a secret message, as does having Holmes and Watson talk about it openly as it happens. Anyway, it leads them to a meeting with representatives of Rovinia, who want Holmes to escort the heir to the assassinated king back home. Holmes is assigned a small plane, requiring Watson to take a cruise ship, the Friesland, and meet Holmes in Algiers. (This is implicitly meant to be the unchronicled adventure Watson hinted at in “The Adventure of the Norwood Builder,” “the shocking affair of the Dutch steamship Friesland, which so nearly cost us both our lives.” We also get to hear Watson’s partial account of the affair of the giant rat of Sumatra, alluded to in “The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire.”)

Much as in The Spider Woman, Watson briefly believes Holmes has been killed in a plane crash with the prince, but soon discovers that Holmes ditched the plane before the crash (it’s not explained how) and stowed himself and the prince aboard the liner. Most of the movie is thus a ship-based story, with the leads interacting with their colorful fellow passengers, many of whom have secrets, and one of whom is a beautiful singer (Marjorie Riordan) who performs several songs in the film, mostly for Dr. Watson, with whom she bonds. Nigel Bruce also performs “Loch Lomond” in an unexpectedly strong, operatic voice. And there’s a trio of bad guys after the prince, including a deadly knife-thrower played by German actor Martin Kosleck, who reminds me slightly of a young Peter Lorre, and who has a clash or two with Holmes, to his detriment.

The title is highly misleading. Algiers had a cinematic reputation as an exotic land of intrigue and romance (thanks largely to the 1938 Charles Boyer/Hedy Lamarr film Algiers), which is presumably why they chose to invoke it; but the movie ends just as the ship reaches Algiers and the city is never actually seen, nor do any of the passengers have any connection to it. They could’ve chosen any other coastal destination with zero impact on the story.

Despite all the intrigue and music and so forth, I find this the blandest film yet in the series. The cruise ship setting is a bit too static and claustrophobic, the setup is a bit too contrived, and there’s no real mystery, no murder to be solved, just some obvious bad guys to thwart and a couple of red herrings to expose. While Holmes still gets to be exceedingly clever and devious, it doesn’t really feel like a Holmes story otherwise. This steamship adventure is the first suggestion that the series is running out of steam.

Terror by Night (’46): The second movie in a row to use the “passengers on a conveyance” format, this film is set almost entirely within three cars of a railroad train. The budget must’ve been getting really tight by this point, limiting them to these claustrophobic stories. (This is also the first film in the series to run less than an hour, though only three of the Universal films surpass 70 minutes.) The introductory narration (anonymous this time) reuses the “fabulous jewel with a trail of death” setup previously used by The Pearl of Death. It feels very derivative from the start, and mostly it isn’t very interesting, just a lot of moving back and forth among compartments in a single car as Holmes, Watson, and Lestrade conduct their various investigations and interrogations of the passengers. Watson is more clueless than ever; not only is he totally unhelpful (aside from getting the drop on the baddie in the climax, though Holmes does most of the fighting that follows, or rather his unconvincing stunt double does), but he borders on actually impeding Holmes’s work — alienating one suspect by attempting his own clumsy interrogation, diverting Holmes from a key clue to pursue a red herring, and failing to notice Holmes hanging on the outside of the train when one of the villains kicks him out. It’s his most unflattering portrayal yet. By this point, Bruce’s Watson really has become the caricature that everyone remembers him for these days.

There’s a decent guest turn from Alan Mowbray as the villain, who further makes Watson look bad by impersonating an old war buddy of his with Watson none the wiser, but who turns out to be Colonel Sebastian Moran, Moriarty’s right hand from “The Adventure of the Empty House.” Also notable is the main female guest star, Renee Godfrey, who’s gorgeous as all get-out, but does such a terrible Cockney accent that it took me several scenes to figure out that’s what it was supposed to be.

Once more, the title is pretty random — not misleading so much as uninformative. Okay, the story does take place mostly over one night, but as with the past couple of movies, the title emphasizes something that isn’t really that significant to the plot. But I guess Murder on the Edinburgh Express would’ve been too derivative…

The plot does have a decent twist or two toward the end, but it’s yet another “The villains seem to get the drop on Holmes but he turns out to have been two steps ahead of them all along” ending. The main novelty it offers is that Holmes’s plan depends on Lestrade being quick on the uptake for once, and the Inspector rises nicely to the occasion, a good ending for his final appearance in the series.

Dressed to Kill (’46): After the last two cheap, formulaic entries, I was afraid the Rathbone series would come to a disappointing end, but fortunately that isn’t the case. I doubt that Roy William Neill, the producer/director of all but the first of the Universal Holmes films, could have known that he was nearing the end of his life (he died of a heart attack after this film), and Universal still had three years on the contract, but it’s as if they decided to go out with a bang anyway, or maybe to try to revitalize the series after the last two tepid installments.

This one not only pulls out all the stops, going for a longer run time and a more expansive production, but it gets back to its Holmesian roots, with abundant references to the canon, particularly “A Scandal in Bohemia,” which in the film’s continuity has only just been published in The Strand (55 years later than in reality, and less than four years before the magazine ceased publication). Holmes feels more like himself, with more of his intensity and idiosyncrasies on display than we’ve seen in a while, and while Watson is not particularly on the ball, neither is he particularly dimwitted or the butt of jokes this time, and his musings accidentally inspire key revelations in Holmes twice. This is also the first film in the series since The Spider Woman to acknowledge WWII in any way — indeed, in a particularly disturbing way, when the villains attempt to murder Holmes using the same kind of poison used in the Nazi gas chambers.

The plot is clever, involving the hunt for a trio of “musical boxes” made by a prisoner and encoding the location of the treasury printing plates he stole in the tunes they play. Holmes’s rival in the search for the boxes is the brilliant and lovely Hilda Courtney (Patricia Morison), whose brilliance and cunning rival Irene Adler’s, and who similarly manages to outsmart him, in this case luring him into the gas deathtrap, as well as stealing a trick from “Scandal” to get Watson to reveal where the final music box is hidden. Morison makes Courtney a worthy rival for Holmes, the best in a while. All in all, I’d call this one of the best films in the series, and a worthy finale.

The title’s still in the same oddly generic vein as the previous few, though. I have a hard time figuring out how Dressed to Kill applies to the story, unless it’s a reference to Courtney’s skill at disguise and/or her elegant fashions. It’s also generic in that it’s the third of four unrelated films using the title — the others being a 1928 gangster film with Mary Astor, a 1941 mystery with Lloyd Nolan, and a 1980 erotic thriller directed by Brian De Palma and starring Michael Caine. (Not to mention the Roger Corman sexploitation film Stripped to Kill from 1987, and its sequel 2 years later.) I wonder why the title is so popular, and why they used it here.

By the way, Rathbone and Bruce were also playing Holmes and Watson on radio in The New Adventures of Sherlock Holmes at the same time that they were doing the films, from 1939-46, though Bruce continued for a year after Rathbone left, and the series continued with other actors until 1950. A number of episodes survive online at the Internet Archive and elsewhere, and I’ve listened to a couple, but I didn’t think too much of them. Since the radio series started in the wake of the first two 20th Century Fox films, it set its stories in the Victorian Era and stayed there even after the Universal films jumped into the present (which must’ve been a bit confusing for the audience). Although the radio adventures were framed by a retired Watson narrating them to the radio host in the present day, which would have made him exceedingly old. Unfortunately, the format means that we hear considerably more of Bruce’s voice than Rathbone’s, and Bruce’s wheezy voice isn’t all that pleasant to listen to; indeed, his performance on radio sounds somewhat more shrill than his onscreen voice. As for the stories, the mysteries in the two I heard were rather basic and obvious. I guess there’s not much room to tell a complex mystery in a 25-minute story where much of the running time is devoted to the narrator talking about how terrific the sponsor’s wine is. Plus they had to churn them out once a week for years on end, so they can’t all be gems. The radio show is an interesting curiosity, but only a handful of its episodes seem to survive, and I’m not compelled to listen to them all.

I also decided to take a look at the previous Holmes film series, which ran from 1931-7 and starred Arthur Wontner as Holmes. But I couldn’t get through the first film, The Sleeping Cardinal. Wontner is a very unconvincing Holmes to me, an older man (56 as of the first film) with a slow, reedy voice, giving little sense of Holmes’s intelligence or intensity. He does look strikingly like some of Sidney Paget’s illustrations of an older Holmes, but he probably would’ve been more successful playing the role in silent films than in talkies. His Watson in most of the series (Ian Fleming — no, not that one) is younger and livelier, reminding me of David Burke, the first Watson from the Jeremy Brett TV series. It’s almost an inversion of the later Rathbone-Bruce dynamic, which paired a strong Holmes and a weak, older Watson. A curiosity, but not entertaining enough to hold my interest.

Incidentally, I was wrong to say earlier that Rathbone’s The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes popularized “Elementary, my dear Watson, elementary.” Wontner says it twice in his first two scenes. And it was already a well-established meme before then, already being referenced and parodied at the turn of the century, though its origin is hard to pin down. Here’s the most detailed article I’ve found on the subject, concluding that it was probably derived from a misremembering of the 1899 William Gillette Sherlock Holmes play, which doesn’t contain the line as scripted but contains similar lines that might’ve been conflated by the audience’s memory or by actor flubs.

I went into the Rathbone series with low expectations, figuring that it would be cheesy and inauthentic. But aside from a few weak entries, I found it surprisingly good overall. Despite the updated period and the mishandling of Watson, and despite telling mostly original stories, it’s pretty authentic in its treatment of Holmes, and it shows a lot of knowledge of the Doyle canon, with references peppered throughout, including subtle nods to things like Holmes keeping his pipe tobacco in a slipper, or a much less subtle recreation of the bit where he shot holes in the wall of 221B to test a theory (and those bullet holes remain in the wall for the remainder of the series, a nice little bit of continuity). Basil Rathbone is perfect as Holmes, in both appearance and performance, making him charming without losing his intellectual precision, eccentricity, and reserve. The series has a number of effective villains as well, including several female villains who are almost more than a match for Holmes, and watching his debonair battles of wits with them is quite entertaining. Moriarty is well-handled when he does appear, and he isn’t overused, being featured only three times in fourteen films, though referenced in several others.

All in all, I’ve come away with a renewed appreciation for the Rathbone series, as a solidly entertaining 1940s film series in its own right, as an adaptation of the Holmes canon, and as an antecedent for more recent screen adaptations and modernizations. It’s as valuable in its own right as the Jeremy Brett series that was “my” Holmes for a long time, or as Sherlock and (my preferred) Elementary today. I’m glad I decided to see it.