The Delightful Sherlock Potter

young-sherlock
See that kid shopping for wands across there…?

2017.12: Young Sherlock Holmes (1985)

I never got around to watch this movie, one of those that slipped through the net even over so many years (thirty-plus years, where have they gone?!), and as a Spielberg-produced Amblin film from the mid-eighties, it’s always been on my to-watch list. So when it was screened over the Christmas holidays I took the opportunity to record it on the tivo and have finally gotten around to watch it.

And you know what? I’m watching it and I’m too distracted to really enjoy it on its own merits, and why? I’m watching it thinking I’m watching a Harry Potter movie.

Its all there. Sherlock and Watson, two boys in a fancy English boarding school, forming a trio with a young girl, Emma. There’s a fellow schoolboy with blonde hair who is a sneak and no-good rival to Holmes. There is a central mystery that unfolds that only our daring trio seem to be aware of or willing to tackle. The schoolboys have meals at long tables in a grand hall with the teachers at the head on a special table, and one of those teachers turns out to be the main bad guy. With all respect to J K Rowling, this was a surreal and bizarre experience. Young Sherlock Holmes is like some prototype Harry Potter movie.

On its own merits, Young Sherlock Holmes is a delightful old-school kind of movie, the kind we had so many of back in the ‘eighties that we took them for granted, back when Lucas and Spielberg and Dante and Donner were making family movies. Blockbusters with intelligence and heart. The music score is bold and full of melodic material giving the film a sense of self-identity that music scores so seldom do these days,  and the setting is lovely and full of character. The pacing is steady and the effects rather restrained in hindsight (at the time, they may have seemed a bigger deal, but it pales in comparison to the number of effects shots thrown into so many blockbusters these days). The acting is pretty fine throughout the cast. I can well understand why it has its fans, and it’s sad that it didn’t gain enough of an audience at the time to justify what was no doubt intended to be a series of Young Holmes movies. If only the studio had risked another film, they may have had better success- indeed, these days I’m fairly certain, given Hollywood’s keenness for franchises, that the film would have gotten a sequel whatever its lacklustre box-office. Maybe sequels were a tougher sell back in the ‘eighties.

But that Harry Potter thing. Its weird.

sherl2One last note, and this regards the cast. You know how it is, watching a film, particularly one a fair few years old as this,  you see someone’s face, and you think, ‘where have I see that face before..?’  It’s the kind of thing that could drive you crazy in the old days, but thanks to IMDB its a mystery easily solved. During Young Sherlock Holmes, it was the actress playing Mrs Dribb, a school nurse and (apparently) minor character in a neat piece of misdirection that I won’t spoil here. Anyway, the actress was Susan Fleetwood, likely familiar from Clash of the Titans and some tv work during that decade. Unfortunately my discovery was one tinged with some sadness, as I learned the actress died in 1995 aged just 51 years old. This kind of thing has happened before to me, watching films and looking names up on the IMDB. You see a fine performance frozen in time like that and then discover the person has died in the years since, and you can read their entire life in a biography of a few paragraphs. Its a terribly sobering thing.

The 2014 Hitlist Revisited

Readers with a long memory may recall I started this year with a hitlist of movies to watch during 2014. A wishlist of films that either had been on the shelf for too long or new discs I had yet to see, I set up the hitlist thinking it might be enough to drive me into actually watching some of the films. Well, it had mixed results really, and if I decide to set up a 2015 Hitlist I’ll need to be more disciplined/determined about nailing it. Or more choosy about what I put on it.

So looking back at the 2014 Hitlist, what do we have, and how did I do?

betty1) Betty Blue– Well, we’re off to a bad start immediately, as this one somehow slipped through the cracks and didn’t get watched at all. Which is rather odd as I ‘ve always been curious about it, ever since a friend raved about his VHS copy many moons ago. Maybe one to add to the 2015 Hitlist then.

2) Cinema Paradiso– This one I watched, and really enjoyed. Finally I could understand all the fuss and attention around this film for all those years. Indeed, one of the better films that I would see all year.

3) Only God Forgives– Watched this one too. Found it rather odd and disappointing really, particularly after I had enjoyed Drive so much before. Smacked of over-indulgence on all levels really, to the detriment of ‘proper’ or effective storytelling. One to revisit sometime maybe.

4) Cleopatra– Another one slips through the cracks. I’m not expecting anything special, which is why I guess I’ve been putting it off still (well, that and the length of the darn thing). Maybe because I know its a film more famous for the stories behind it than for the film itself. Which is something true of the next film on my list-

hgate5) Heaven’s Gate– What a shocking disappointment this was. I really wanted to like it but good grief it was so poorly constructed with a really lacklustre script. I think it should be screened every year in Films Schools as an object lesson in How Not To Do It. Really, its one of those rare films that even though its bad, I’d actually recommend, particularly to film buffs as its quite an eye-opener. In an odd way, it almost forgives Hollywood for all the ‘safe’, over-marketed and simplistic/sanitized crap we get these days. Subject for discussion one day: Its because of Heavens Gate that we now suffer Transformers.

6) The Maltese Falcon– Didn’t get around to it. Shame on me.

7) Batman: The Dark Knight Returns Deluxe Edition– This I did see, and quite enjoyed. Frustrating thing is, watching it I have the constant thought that this should have been a live-action Batman or how Nolan’s trilogy ended.

8) Harry Potter 8-Film Collection– Hey, now this I did watch, a boxset binge of a massive film franchise that passed me by on its cinema releases. Unfortunately this is how movies are going these days; turning into boxsets. Its a strange thing really. The Potter films are fine but increasingly fail to function as individual movies, which is a bit of a problem. As a series boxset, there is also an issue that the best of the films is the third instalment, and that its frankly all downhill from there. But hey, its eight films so it was some kind of result actually getting through it. Of course this is how some people now ‘discover’ the Star Wars films or the Lord of the Rings films (one day it’ll be a LOTR saga of six films, which will give newbies a struggle getting through three bloated Hobbit movies before getting to the good stuff).

9) Lolita (possibly the last Kubrick film I have yet to see)- Ah, no. Didn’t get to it, so its a Kubrick I have still to see. It occurs to me that there is something very wrong with the world if I watch so many rubbish films and yet still have a film by Kubrick that I have yet to see.

10) Marnie (one of the few Hitchcock’s I have yet to see) ) No, not this either. Again, I watch stuff like Transformers 4 but I have a Hitchcock film on the shelf unseen? Okay, I hear its hardly vintage Hitchcock but all the same, its got to be seen, yes?

Beyond those ten, I had a further ten, which were films I had seen before but not yet in HD. These were Blu-rays I’d bought usually as upgrades from DVDs but hadn’t watched yet. Unfortunately I only watched two of them, so won’t go into any detail here. Other than to say I must try harder next year, and I cannot believe I haven’t watched my Blu-rays of Big Trouble in Little China or Invasion of the Bodysnatchers. What the hell have I been doing in 2014?

 

Harry Potter Roundup

HPBXWell, I’ve seen all the Harry Potter movies; rather than stick to individual posts for the remaining movies I thought I’d just do one that sums them up. Partly because, by Harry Potter & The Order of the Phoenix the films are well into serial mode rather than being wholly self-contained, and its unfair to criticise them for not working as standalone movies by this point- truth is, movies like this rather operate in a different way to normal movies. Also because I’d only be repeating myself  each time by this point.

One thought really- does a good book necessarily make a good movie? Several times whilst watching these films I found myself being overly forgiving thinking ‘well, its obviously something in the book’. Horrible pacing issues aside, the films always seemed hampered by an episodic nature within the individual films themselves. I wouldn’t have been shocked had sequences been presaged by a ‘Chapter Two/ Chapter Three…’ subtitle during the films. It made me wonder if perhaps the films were too faithful to the books? Admit its a bit of a poisoned chalice there. I’ve never read the books but can imagine how fans might have reacted to any wild departures or omitting anything (I’m a huge fan of Snyder’s Watchmen movie, and know how it was criticised for being too faithful).

So it seems wrong to criticise the Potter films when really most of my problems are really with the books, and to be fair to Rowling, she was writing books, not screenplays for eventual films (well, when she began the series at least). Pacing etc works differently in a book, chapters can be self-contained and readers can always flick back to earlier sections if they need to check a reference or something. Films don’t work that way and what might be a slow chapter might be a minor annoyance in a book but might be a numbing twenty minutes in a film that breaks the thing completely. A screenplay and a book are two entirely different beasts, to be sure.

One thing that did surprise me, was how the Deathly Hollows finale degenerated into a typical cgi-fest, something that might well be expected of an original film of its ilk but being based on books I thought something more, well, intimate was in the offing. Why does ‘epic’ these days seem to automatically mean a cast of thousands of virtual characters beating the virtual shit out of each other (it was a novel spectacle in the LOTR films, but by God we’ve had it regurgitated so many times since). Does anyone find any of that stuff dramatic? Most dramatic moment in the Star Wars films- not the Death Star battle or any other of the fx set-pieces, its the fight between Vader and Luke in TESB.  One character and another, eye to eye without flashy stunts or pyrotechnics. An example so few filmmakers or audiences seem to appreciate in this era of bigger, louder movies.

But I did rather enjoy the Potter films- they certainly seemed to work better in a boxset watched over a few weeks as opposed to over a few years as they were originally released. They may have worked better as movies had they been edited/structured as such rather than being so faithful to the structure/length of the actual books, but, well, that’s a case of damned if they did, damned if they didn’t. Not bad films though. Will no doubt dig out the box again someday.

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2005)

hp4Making these Harry Potter films must have been a huge undertaking. I haven’t had time (or inclination, to be honest, as I’m trying to stay spoiler-free) to look into any behind the scenes extras on the discs or read any info about how the films were made, but I assume that as one film would go into post-production the next would start pre-production in order to get them out every 12-18 months. It takes some doing; the logistics must have been immense and the producers have my sympathy/admiration. The Harry Potter films are big films, with ambitious effects and sophisticated sets and a fairly large cast, with the added weight of matching expectations of die-hard fans of the books as rabid as any Dr Who fan or Trekkie. I would imagine debates still rage about characters changed or scenes missing, as I gather the films were not entirely faithful- well, how could they be? Even at an average two and a half hours per film, some of those Harry Potter books are big and the films can’t keep everything. At least Peter Jackson wasn’t at the helm, he’d have been releasing three-hour movies and four-hour extended cuts, no doubt (maybe the fans would prefer that, who knows? Tolkien fans may raise a note of caution there!).

So now we come to film number four, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, and inevitably its rather a let-down following the superb Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban that preceded it. Goblet of Fire is more of a functional piece following the artistic triumph of Azkaban. Its certainly an ambitious film, with some major set-pieces that easily dwarf anything in the previous three films- its just hamstrung by more pedestrian direction, although that may have been necessitated by  constraints of budget and schedule, and a rather ham-fisted script.

Harry is back for a fourth year at Hogwarts but this time the year is dominated by a prestigious tournament for which students from two other Magical Academies are invited in order to determine the most gifted young wizard. Sort of a World Cup of Wizardry; its a dangerous series of challenges involving a deadly dragon, mermaids and a man-eating maze.  Due to the dangers involved it is supposed to be restricted to the older students only, but Harry finds himself  mysteriously entered into the tournament by Persons or Entities Unknown. It all feels rather predictable to be honest, and Harry suddenly becoming Mr Unpopular amongst his friends and classmates is rather unlikely and forced, obviously keying into adolescent angst and narcissism. I can see what the book and film is doing here but it doesn’t convince.

The film plods along in episodic fashion (something of a problem for all the Potter films) but gets interesting just at the end, when at long last  Harry’s nemesis, the evil Lord Voldemort returns to human form to ensure suitable menace for the remaining films. A thoroughly impressive villain who thankfully lives up to all the hype/warnings in films one to three, and rather scary for the younger viewers, Ralph Fiennes chewing up the scenery in fine form. Suddenly an extra darkness is injected and a character dies, and then the film ends. At least I don’t have long to see what happens next; cinemagoers were not so fortunate. Got to love these box-sets.

So an average film but saved/made more interesting by its last half-hour. The series certainly looks to be moving into movie-serial format now with the main arc taking over at last. Four films in, its about time really…

 

 

 

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004)

hp3Third times the charm, as they say- well, here we go, by far the best Harry Potter film I’ve yet seen, and I really doubt it will get any better than this: Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is, pardon the pun, a simply magical ride. With Chris Columbus (the competent but rather unimaginative  director of the first two outings) gone, someone had the genius idea to hire Alfonso Cuarón for movie three and it works magnificently. From the very start there is a sense of wit, fun and charm that the first two films lacked, and this runs all through the film, from imaginative scene transitions to spellbinding production design and art direction. This was simply a joy to watch and I thoroughly enjoyed it- a real feast for the eyes.

It is so quirky and stylish, you really get the sense that this is a director’s movie as opposed to a film made by a committee. Chris Columbus is a competent director but he didn’t seem to stamp the first two films with his own authority and style, but its clear here that Cuarón was in charge and made his own movie. Its a movie based on a book, not a movie recreating a book slavishly. At least that’s what I assume (having never read the books), from how this film looks and feels so different from its predecessors. Its like a breath of fresh air, and suddenly the franchise seems full of possibilities. For the first time I’m watching one of these Harry Potter movies with an understanding as to what all the fuss is about. Doesn’t really feel like a children’s film either; it really feels like the film-makers finally sussed how to make a Harry Potter movie.

The music score, too, is a revelation. This film has a really fun, sparkling soundtrack, composed by John Williams. This, his last score for the series (although his themes will be no doubt utilised in the further films) is a riot. I have no idea if Williams let rip simply because it was his last shot at the films or if he was inspired by what he was seeing of  Cuarón’s film, but goodness its a wonderful return to form with shades of his great scores of the late seventies/early eighties.

Of course, part of the success of this film compared to Chamber of Secrets may be down to a slightly longer production schedule, as this film seems to have had a good six months longer (released summer 2004 as opposed to what might have been Winter 2003 following the run of the earlier films). Certainly having a new director revitalised the films and I look forward to what happens next.

 

 

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (2001)

hp1This is the one our cousins across the pond retitled ‘Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone‘, wasn’t it? How’d that work with everyone in the movie talking about the Philosopher’s Stone? What was the problem with using the term  ‘Philos0pher’s‘ anyway? These things can keep one awake at night, I mean, as if the world isn’t strange enough as it is, someone feels the need to retitle a children’s film – a children’s film!-because the title is confusing or might upset somebody or something.

Something else that could keep one awake at night is the realisation that this film dates back to 2001. Wookies in a wastebasket, what’s this- this film is thirteen years old already?!!  Good grief, it doesn’t feel so long ago.  Its a sobering thought that when this film was made and released the success of the franchise spinning out the entire book saga onto film was not a certainty. As it turned out the series of films was likely more successful critically and financially than anyone might have dreamed.

I should make a disclaimer here- I never read any of the books, and when the films originally came out I gave up around film three because it was confusing me/I couldn’t really follow it, certainly not via DVD rentals (I know, I know, I should have tried harder, but annual or biannual gaps between films left much of the Potter mythos rather confusing to me). I thought it would be best to watch the whole saga with a boxset so missed the subsequent films and avoided any spoilers (which took some doing, really). Anyway, here I am, bought the Blu-ray box in a lightning deal on Amazon back in December and am finally giving it a shot.

So anyway, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. Having not seen it since on its first DVD release many moons ago, I had forgotten much of it. A number of things spring to mind. First, its got a cast to die for. Really, give it a few more decades and this will be even more true; already its a Whos Who of (largely) UK talent- I wonder if there was any pressure to make it American Friendly with the casting process? As it is, even the then-unknowns (the kids, pretty much) are excellent. So yeah, the casting is great. Second, its clear that its based on a book- there is a rich creativity in the setting that simply wouldn’t be there had this been an original screenplay- movies just aren’t this good creatively usually, certainly not when dreamed up from scratch. There is a wit and charm to the piece and threads obviously being laid for subsequent stories. No doubts fans of the books could pour over incidental details/references lost on me.

The film isn’t perfect, but as the first film in an untried series it does very well. Some of the visual effects are a little dated but hell, that’s largely a combination of the film dating back to 2001 and a likely limited budget. The direction by Chris Columbus is largely functional/competent, but it works pretty well. The cast have a chemistry, the story is engaging, it works pretty much for children and adults alike. Its a great family movie, and the best is no doubt yet to come. It will be interesting to see the cast develop and the success of the films transferred to the screen with bigger budgets and more confidence/experience behind the scenes.

Of Hungry Games and Un-Tolkien Hobbits

catchingfireWatched Catching Fire the other day, the second of the Hunger Games series of films (of which there will be four, I believe). Good film, mind, but I have to say I’m getting increasingly irritated by all these movie series. Its as if a series box-set mania has settled over Hollywood of late. I guess it was inevitable, considering the ‘safety-net’ of sequels and how they almost sell themselves.

We decided to watch the first film, The Hunger Games, the night before, to refresh our memory having not seen it for, what, a year or two? Just as well, because it improved being able to follow events/characters in the second film no end. I have no idea of what the original books are like, or what happens in them. The films seem to be quite good and I assume fairly faithful to the books. Seems the third book is being split into two films though, which is rather irritating- we get the third film November 2014 and the third November 2015? So those of us who avoid the cinema like the plague will have to wait for disc releases each following Spring. Does the third book warrant this two-part treatment, or is it a financial decision to maximise box-office and disc sales? Ignorant of the texts, I really don’t know. Harry Potter did it. The Hobbit is notorious for it, going for three.

Serials/mini-series on television have a key advantage over movies in that they can spread a story/book over several hours, and have more in-depth characterisation and narrative/plot than can be condensed into an ordinary two-hour movie. Of course, you also usually only have to wait a week for succeeding chapters/parts, whereas transferring the positives of the serial format into the movie-arena proves somewhat problematic with annual or bi-annual breaks between parts. Re-watching Catching Fire the other night with the in-laws was a telling experience, with my mother-in-law sighing “oh, no…!” when she realised that yes, the film after two-plus hours was indeed ending on this almighty cliffhanger with a year-long wait to see what happens next. Its frustrating (the cliffhanger highly reminiscent of that of Matrix Reloaded, but at least being shot back-to-back the Matrix 2 & 3 only had a six-month break between them).

I’m sure The Hunger Games Quartet box-set (or whatever its called when its released in 2016) will be a great watch for those new to the Hunger Games series- it would be nice to watch each film over successive nights/weeks and get the whole story to its conclusion in good time. Indeed I’ve recommended a friend at work to perhaps simply wait for the boxset and watch them then. But for those of us watching them right now its very irritating. I remember when you sat down to watch a film knowing it would have a definitive end, it seems a long time ago. All the super-hero films being inter-connected have the feeling of being teasers for further instalments.

smaug1Of course some films feel like they might never end, and The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, ostensibly based on  a rather short and simple book, transferred to film seems to be a bloated middle section of an epic without end. Complaints that the first film took a long time to get started seem to have been heeded by the film-makers, but this turns out, oddly enough, to be at the detriment of the second film, as it now just seems to race from one set-piece to another. The character-building of the first film seems to have been ditched entirely (perhaps rectified when the extended edition arrives in the Autumn?), instead new characters are thrown in proving more an irritating distraction from the guys we should be rooting for. And the troop of dwarves here are very inferior to the fellowship of the Rings films- whether this is the casting or the script I don’t know, but I think the blame chiefly lies with the skimpy source. The depth frankly isn’t there compared to the characters of the Rings trilogy- indeed  The Hobbit series seems to be proving woefully weak compared to the Lord of the Rings trilogy, clearly without the substance of source to carry a huge trilogy of films.  The Hobbit book itself was never an epic; it was an intimate, charming children’s fantasy book and re-fashioning it into this huge sprawling complex narrative is doing it a disservice. And the ending of this film is even worse than that of Catching Fire. My brother saw this at the cinema and told me there was a collective groan of disbelief/frustration/weariness amongst the cinema goers at the films denouement. It doesn’t get any better when watching it at home.

Of course no doubt many are lapping this Hobbit stuff  up- I have seen several reviews declaring DOS  better than the first film. Well, the first film was flawed but anyone stating this film is superior is patently wrong; its simply an OTT effects showcase (and oddly those are somewhat dodgy effects in places), lurching from set-piece to set-piece with interminably long action sequences that are rather clumsily staged. The really sad bit comes when these action sequences are compared to those of the original LOTR films. Compare the barrel escape and subsequent chase/fight down the river in DOS to the fight sequence with Boromir and co. at the end of The Fellowship of the Ring- its like they are staged and shot by different film-makers. There’s simply far too much don’t-I-look-cool posing and over-thought doesn’t-it-look-cool fight choreography. Rather than just keep it simple and fairly realistic we are (just as with the chase in the Goblin King’s Halls in the first film) thrown into something reminiscent of a video-game. There is a substance lacking here, its just cgi bells and whistles to impress. Yet, many do indeed lap this stuff up. Me, I’m waiting for it to stop, but when it does, I’m then being bored/irritated by some ill-thought romance between a frustrated Wood-Elf and a Dwarf- hardly the stuff of Tolkien is it? Just how much of the actual Hobbit book is in this film anyway?

One of the things I loved about the Rings films was the incidental detail- fallen idols, ancient ruins, hints of a rich and largely unmentioned past that lent the setting a verisimilitude that gave the whole thing a gravity and drama. The Hobbit films don’t seem to have that. Yes, it looks gorgeous but it seems to lack any of the the depth of the Rings films. Perhaps it is something the extended versions will comparatively excel at.

I’m rather of the opinion that The Hunger Games films are superior films/book adaptations to The Hobbit films. I wouldn’t have expected that, to be honest, after enjoying the LOTR films so much. Its a pity, and I really think that the root cause is not being faithful to the material. The Hobbit could have been one movie, maybe two films at most. This trilogy nonsense seems more about making money than anything else- perhaps the third film will come good and prove me wrong, justifying this trilogy approach after all. Time will tell.

 

One last thing- a nod to my work colleague Steve who, having realised he’d somehow ordered two copies of this film on Blu-ray in error, simply gave his extra copy to me. I’d intended to wait for the extended version this Autumn but his generosity enabled me to see the film much earlier than intended. Cheers Steve! 

The 2014 Hitlist

Here’s a list of films on Blu-ray I have STILL to watch that escaped through the net during 2013, which will HAVE to be watched during 2014- it may take awhile for some of them but mark my words, they WILL be watched and (hopefully) reviewed:

1) Betty Blue (there’s two versions on the Blu-ray, theatrical and director’s cut, if anybody knows which is the best version to watch, let me know!)

2) Cinema Paradiso (again, there’s two versions on the Blu-ray, theatrical and director’s cut, if anybody knows which is the best version to watch, let me know!)

3) Only God Forgives

4) Cleopatra

5) Heaven’s Gate

6) The Maltese Falcon

7) Batman: The Dark Knight Returns Deluxe Edition

8) Harry Potter 8-Film Collection (well, I’ve seen films 1-3 before when they first came out, but I need a refresh after all these years before I tackle the remainder so it’ll be a Harry Potter movie marathon sometime soon)

9) Lolita (possibly the last Kubrick film I have yet to see)

10) Marnie (one of the few Hitchcock’s I have yet to see)

I’m very curious, and also rather guilty,  about many of those. And adding onto the list those films I’ve actually seen before in years past but not yet in HD-

11) Lawrence of Arabia

12) Perfect Blue

13) Barry Lyndon

14) Full Metal Jacket

15) Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)

16) Big Trouble in Little China

17)Universal Monsters Collection (8 films!)

18) Vertigo

19) 12 Angry Men

20) Brides of Dracula

There’s a few more but I draw the line there; twenty titles with two box-sets amongst them. Plenty to be getting on with, alongside the numerous titles I’ll inevitably pick up as the year progresses. We’ll see how it goes…