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Movie Quickies: Sherlock Holmes, The Lovely Bones, A Serious Man

Hey, folks—

Sorry it’s been so long since the last post… last week was a
mad dash for the holiday finish line, with a lot of late nights and early
mornings.But saw a bunch of
movies this weekend… some wonderfully written, some horribly written… so I wanted
to pass on some thoughts on "Sherlock Holmes," "The Lovely Bones," and "A Serious Man"...

Exactly the movie you think it’s gonna be, and exactly the movie it should
be—fun, fast, and popcorny.I’m
not always a Guy Ritchie fan, and while his whooshy style sometimes gets
tiresome, he uses it nicely here.
It still occasionally feels like stylistic trickery, but he uses it well
to bring to life Holmes’ thought processes and flashbacks… meaning it actually
helps tell the story, rather than just looking cool.

As for the script… the real centerpiece isn’t the mystery,
but the Holmes/Watson relationship. When the film begins, best buddies Holmes
and Dr. Watson have been living together for years, but Watson has recently
gotten engaged to his girlfriend Mary… meaning that Holmes is not only about to
lose his roommate, but also—he fears—his best friend.Together, Holmes and Watson are part quarreling brothers,
part sparring married couple.
Screenwriters Simon Kinberg, Anthony Peckham, Lionel Wigram, and Michael
Robert Johnson
do a nice job creating a brokenhearted Holmes… and I credit
Kinberg with their snappy Tracy-Hepburn repartee.The script doesn’t dig particularly deep into the emotional
intricacies of their relationship, but it serves its purpose well.

As for the mystery itself… to be honest: it’s not always
easy to follow the logic from one clue to the next; “CSI” episodes are easier
to follow.But it doesn’t matter
here… the fun of the movie isn’t the thrill of solving the puzzle, it’s
spending with Holmes and Watson.

haven’t read Alice Sebold’s novel, so I don’t know what story the movie was
SUPPOSED to tell, but I’m guessing this wasn’t it.Told from the perspective of Susie Salmon, a murdered
teenager beyond the grave, “The Lovely Bones” tells the story of… what?Susie’s ghost wanting revenge on her
secret killer, George Harvey?A
husband and wife trying to hold together their marriage in the aftermath of a
tragedy?A sister investigating
her sister’s death?In the hands
of usually-terrific writers Fran Walsh, Phillipa Boyens, and Peter Jackson,
it’s all of those… and none of those.

First of all, there’s no single character here with a
specific Want… or who takes any specific action.And while I’m all for ensemble pieces, characters in
ensembles still need specific, tangible Wants that drive them to action… and
the characters here have none.Or,
rather, they flit from Want to Want and Action to Action with little
consistency, so we’re never sure who we’re rooting for or what they’re trying
to accomplish.

The movie’s biggest weakness, however, is that it’s
overwhelmed not by the lack of story, but by Peter Jackson’s visual
effects-driven depictions of Susie’s afterlife.A good 60 percent of the movie is composed of these gorgeous
visuals… that serve absolutely NO purpose in the movie.They seem to be laden with symbolism,
but this symbolism is both heavy-handed and meaningless.

In one scene, for instance, as dead Susie has realizations
about her life, a gigantic rose blooms beneath her feet (heavy-handed).Meanwhile, back on Earth, Susie’
father, Jack, is in the midst of a conversation with Mr. Harvey and spots a
rose on a bush… then immediately realizes Harvey is Susie’s murderer.WTF?!A) The rose is meaningless to Susie’s father… he has no
reason to connect this to his dead daughter.B)Even if the
rose somehow makes him think of Susie, there’s absolutely no reason that this
reminder should suddenly make him suspect Mr. Harvey.It’s cheap, lazy storytelling—replacing actual logic with
sentimentality that doesn’t really connect the dots (but tries to trick
audiences into thinking it does).

In fact, virtually every moment of the
trying-to-catch-Mr.-Harvey story, the small thriller element of the movie,
hinges not on actual crime-solving logic, but on characters having unfounded,
emotional hunches.(I can’t tell
you how many times characters claim they have the “skeevies” about someone… and
those “skeevies” lead them to catching the criminal.)

Because Jackson spends so much time masturbating with his
visual effects machines, the real drama here gets robbed of its emotional
potential.There’s plenty of great
dramatic fodder here, but virtually none of it gets explored.The 40 percent of the movie that’s NOT
spent in Susie’s overblown afterlife is mostly narrated by Susie… with very
little drama or story taking place between characters.There’s a nice, angry—albeit
short—scene between Susie’s mother and grandmother… and that—aside from the
Susie’s murder scene—is the only scene where characters seem to be conflicting
emotionally against each other.
The other scenes with any emotional intensity concern either one
character alone… or are narrated from a distance.

Sadly, “The Lovely Bones” is neither compelling family drama
nor solid thriller… but it’s a great example of how NOT to write both.

Maybe one of my favorite movies of the year, the Coen Brothers’ “A Serious Man”
shouldn’t work.At all.The story of stepped-on husband/father
Larry Gropnik, it focuses on a main character who wants nothing tangible—he
simply wants answers to questions, both specific and existential.(I.e., “Why is my wife cheating on
me?”“Why does God let horrible
things happen to good people?”
Etc.)It is, in a way, a
Woody Allen film as done by the Coen Brothers.Hilarious, frustrating, endearing, shocking…

It’s hard to pinpoint traditional screenwriting lessons or
take-aways, because it’s such an unconventional film, but one of the things it
does remarkably well is create a tenacious character who wants something
(answers) and pursues them doggedly, then it continually throws obstacles—both small
(a son’s annoying questions) and large (car crashes, extramarital affairs)—in his
path.It’s a great study in
constructing a character who refuses to give up on his mission, no matter how
big the challenges in his way.

Anyway—I’m off tonight to see “Brothers.”More importantly—while this is kinda
old news—how awesome was the “Glee” finale a couple weeks ago?(Finally watched it yesterday… twice.)


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