Review of “Mr. Holmes”

Having been out of the consulting detective business for 30 years, a 93-year old Sherlock Holmes (Ian McKellen) fills his days at a home in the English countryside tending his beehives. His mental faculties are beginning to leave him and he is desperate to find a way to reverse his decline. A letter from a Japanese fan of his book on royal jelly begins a correspondence between Holmes and Tamiki Umezaki (Hiroyuki Sanada). Umezaki tells Holmes about a plant in Japan that is supposed to possess restorative powers for the mind and circulation, leading the detective to travel to the land of the rising sun. After returning from that trip with a sample of the prickly ash plant, Holmes begins using a concoction made from it to aid his memory. Holmes, who was never pleased with his depiction in Dr. Watson’s writings, is desperate to remember the details of his final case so he may set the record straight. Holmes housekeeper, Mrs. Munro (Laura Linney) and her son Roger (Milo Parker), live with him. Mrs. Munro is a simple, hardworking woman that doesn’t have much need or time for hobbies. Roger is filled with curiosity and, when he’s done with his chores, enjoys spending time with Holmes, learning about the bees and helping him when he can. Holmes, who can be impatient, enjoys spending time with and answering questions from Roger. Holmes gives Roger pages from the story of his last case as Holmes finishes them; but he’s having more and more trouble recalling the details. Holmes knows there’s something about the case that drove him into retirement and longs to discover what he did wrong. He has fond memories of the subject of his investigation, Mrs. Ann Kelmot (Hattie Morahan), but also feels sadness and regret. Holmes is anxious to remember all he can of the case before his mind is completely gone and his time on Earth is over.

Don’t confuse “Mr. Holmes” with the Robert Downey, Jr. portrayal of the consulting detective as they are different as night and day. Where Downey’s Sherlock is quick repartee and action, Sir Ian McKellen’s Holmes is quiet, reserved and more than a bit sad. This Sherlock Holmes is reflective and knows his days are dwindling down to a precious few. At times, Holmes is pitiful and lost in the wilderness of dementia; however, there are moments when the old Sherlock manages to break through and impress those around him with his powers of deduction.

Jumping back and forth in time and from Japan to England, “Mr. Holmes” is a low-key affair that is more about loss, regret and longing than detection. That’s fine as Ian McKellen is brilliant as Sherlock and Milo Parker makes Roger more than just a precocious brat. Their time on screen together is often both magic and melancholy. Holmes sees something of his younger self in Roger: A boy longing to be more than just the product of his surroundings yearning for knowledge and adventure. Holmes also sees the dark side of that desire when Roger lashes out at his mother when she announces she’s accepted a job at a hotel requiring them to move to a different part of the country. Holmes has spent most of his life alone or at least feeling alone and sees a chance that Roger may be headed down this same solitary road. His reaction to Roger’s outburst may be seen as decidedly un-Holmsian but it shows the character as something other than the calculating automaton as he’s frequently portrayed in the books.

McKellen also performs the role of an elderly individual on the verge of their final decline with unusual accuracy and poignancy. Sadly, I have seen what the ravages of time and illness can do with my own father. His decline was at times slow and hardly noticeable and then he seemed to wither and deteriorate right before my eyes. McKellen, who is 76, is himself looking into the last of his days. While he is still vibrant and active he also has the presence of mind to know he has fewer days in front of him than behind. This obviously informed his performance in the scenes where Holmes is his most decrepit. Sherlock Holmes is a superhero of the mind and his arch nemesis is time. A far more dangerous villain than Moriarity and one he can’t outthink no matter how hard he tries. Seeing Holmes at his most vulnerable is heartbreaking on various levels.

As much as I enjoyed “Mr. Holmes” and Sir Ian McKellen’s performance, I had one problem with the movie. As the story winds down an event occurs involving Roger. I won’t give any more detail than that as to not spoil it for those that wish to see the film; however, I will say it feels more than a little manipulative. We already have warm feelings for Holmes, Roger and even Mrs. Munro who is portrayed as militantly ignorant and wants Roger to be that way as well. We learn she feels this way out of fear (again, I won’t spoil it more than that) but the audience views her as cold and mean towards both Roger and Holmes. Things have warmed up a bit in their relationship when this event occurs causing a great deal of fear and anger along with the possible destruction of something Holmes loves like family. It’s all very melodramatic and heart wrenching and seems completely unnecessary. The movie is based on a book called “A Slight Trick of the Mind” by Mitch Cullin. I’m unsure of how closely the movie follows the book but this final bit of drama feels tacked on for cinematic purposes. Maybe the translation from the page to the screen amplified the emotion or the necessary truncation of events in a book being adapted to a script left out other similarly earthshattering happenings. Whatever the case, it seems out of proportion with the rest of the movie.

“Mr. Holmes” is rated PG for thematic elements, some disturbing images and incidental smoking. We see some survivors of the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima with severely scarred faces. Depression and suicide are featured in parts of the story. People are shown smoking in a movie theatre and in a few other locations. Foul language isn’t an issue.

Ian McKellen would have made a fantastic Sherlock Holmes in his younger years. His subtly expressive face and biting sarcasm could possibly have been the defining portrayal of Holmes for the 20th and 21st centuries. While he’s burned into the collective consciousness as Gandalf and Magneto, McKellen’s distinctive features should have been equally as recognizable as the occupant of 221B Baker Street. It’s a shame we’ll never get to see his performance in “The Hound of the Baskervilles” or “A Study in Scarlet.” Fortunately, we do get to see him in the title role of “Mr. Holmes” and that is special and memorable in its own way. While I hold no sway in such things, I believe Sir Ian McKellen deserves a nod for Best Actor when the Oscars roll around again.

“Mr. Holmes” gets five stars.

A couple of films continue their franchises this week. I’ll see and review at least one of them.

Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation—


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Review of “The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies”

Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) and the company of dwarves led by Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) have reclaimed the underground kingdom of Erebor. Smaug the dragon (voiced and motion captured by Benedict Cumberbatch) is using his fire breath to destroy Laketown in retaliation for some of their residents aiding the dwarves. Locked up in the jail, Bard the Bowman (Luke Evans) manages to break out in an imaginative way and heads to the tower to try and kill Smaug with a bow and arrow. His son has seen where Bard hid the last Black Arrow and brings it to his father. (Minor Spoiler Alert) Bard is able to kill Smaug with the last Black Arrow but Laketown is in ashes. Bard, who has become the de facto leader with the death of the Master of Laketown (Stephen Fry) upon whom Smaug landed in his death dive, leads the survivors to the nearby abandoned village of Dale. Also arriving there is an army of elves led by Thranduil (Lee Pace). Thranduil wants access to Erebor’s treasure to reclaim a necklace of white gems while Bard wants a share of the dwarves gold that Thorin promised; however, Thorin has been afflicted with Dragon Sickness which causes Thorin to covet the treasure as much as Smaug did. He’s also obsessed with finding the Arkenstone, the symbol of leadership for the dwarves. Bilbo stole the Arkenstone during his encounter with Smaug and has snuck out of Erebor with the stone. Gandalf (Ian McKellen) has rejoined the elves at Dale after being freed from Sauron’s prison by the White Council. Bilbo arrives with the Arkenstone and urges Bard and Thranduil to offer it in exchange for the necklace and share of the gold in hopes of avoiding a war. Unknown to all, an Orc army led by Azog the Defiler (motion capture by Manu Bennett) is headed to Dale while a second Orc army is coming from Gundabad in another direction to conquer Erebor and begin preparations for the return of Sauron.

Unless you have been keeping up with the events in “The Hobbit” trilogy, what I described above may as well be in Latin as it probably doesn’t make much sense. Both “The Hobbit” and “Lord of the Rings” trilogies are films that are unkind to casual fans that don’t choose to pay attention to every bit of plot in every film. Unlike “The Fast and Furious” and “Die Hard” movies, these films require you be aware of what has gone on before. If “The Hobbit” had come out first, to fully enjoy “The Lord of the Rings” movies you’d need a nearly encyclopedic knowledge of Middle Earth history just to keep up. For that reason, I suggest if you haven’t seen any of the previous “Hobbit” movies, stay away from “The Battle of the Five Armies” as you will be either completely lost or poking the person with whom you came asking constant questions.

Having given that warning, this will not be my usual review as I have always been a fan of Peter Jackson’s interpretation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s works. Purists may quibble about omitted or modified characters or story details; but one cannot argue that his films aren’t masterful achievements in merging special effects and colorful characters into epic stories of heroism and friendship. What this review will be is kind of a critique of the three films as a whole.

My first and biggest issue with the films is Jackson’s inability to cut anything. The number of long reaction shots (some lengthened via slow motion) and sweeping helicopter camera views of a line of characters walking through the New Zealand wilderness probably adds half an hour of time to films that total up to almost eight hours. The battle scenes in the last film also run on as they consume most of the last half of the film. Surely there are parts of the battle that could have been cut. Watching 75 year old Ian McKellen and 92 year old Christopher Lee battling with Orcs and demons and such also stretches credibility. While both appear to be in good health it’s obvious their action scenes were shot with stunt doubles and their faces digitally stitched on to their replacements. Suggesting they were involved in the battles would have been sufficient. Showing them at length swinging swords and at times performing acrobatic maneuvers should have provided a reaction of “oh wow” but instead I thought “yeah, right.”

For all of Jackson’s mastery and innovation in the field of special effects, “The Hobbit” films have a couple of really bad looking rear projection or green screen shots. These are exclusively close-ups of characters riding on a horse or driving a sled of some sort. It seems inexplicable that Jackson would slip up on something as simple as that. Perhaps he ran out of time or someone else was overseeing that day’s shooting but the fact they made it into the movie is mindboggling.

Taken together, these are minor quibbles when compared to the wonder and majesty of “The Hobbit” trilogy. The spectacular world Jackson built out of J.R.R. Tolkien’s works is the kind of achievement that only comes along once in a while. Considering Jackson has done it twice in the last two decades is amazing. While I don’t think this third film in “The Hobbit” trilogy will meet with quite the kind of award season love the last “The Lord of the Rings” film did, it will probably win a lot of money at the box office. Considering that’s all that is necessary to get more jobs in the film business, “The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies” will be considered a success.

The question is, where does this final film rank among the six Middle Earth movies? I would have to say in fifth place. My order goes as follow: “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King,” “LOTR: The Fellowship of the Ring,” “LOTR: The Two Towers,” “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug,” “TH: The Battle of the Five Armies” and “TH: An Unexpected Journey.” The difference from first to last isn’t enormous but the first “Hobbit” film is something of a slog with the aforementioned long helicopter shots of characters walking through the wilderness.

This brings me to my final point: “The Hobbit” should have been only two films as Peter Jackson first announced. The leaden pacing of “An Unexpected Journey” and the lack of any real movement in the story except near the end seems to make nearly the entire first film a huge waste of time and money. With a bit more surgical excision of unnecessary plot points and more economy of storytelling, “The Hobbit” could easily have fit into two films. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy sword and sorcery films as much as the next person but only if they don’t waste my time.

“The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies” is rated PG-13 for intense fantasy action, frightening images and intense fantasy violence. Numerous Orcs are separated from their heads during the lengthy battle scenes. A couple of characters are stabbed to death. We see goblin creatures menacing people during an attack and one is shown stabbed in the chest. Legolas kills several Orcs with his bow and arrow and he shoots a large bat in the head. There is a very violent fight between Tauriel and one of the larger Orcs. Much of the violence is aimed at imaginary creatures but a few of the human (or dwarf or elf) characters are killed in sometimes graphic but not gory ways. Foul language is not an issue.

Taken as a group, “The Hobbit” films are somewhat frustrating as they sometimes feel like overstuffed burritos: You know there’s good stuff in there but it takes too long to get to it. When they are hitting on all cylinders, “The Hobbit” films are as good as any of Peter Jackson’s work. When they stumble, the movies are a dull struggle. “The Hobbit” films are more inconsistent than “The Lord of the Rings” movies, probably due to the difference in the source material. All in all, “The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies” is a fitting end to the Middle Earth saga, giving us a rousing (if too long) battle between creatures from both fantasy and nightmare. With rights issues and a limited amount of material this is probably the last visit we will have with the residents of the Shire, Erebor, Rivendell and all the other lands of Middle Earth. It may not have been the best of the lot but “The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies” is still a fairly good time with Bilbo, Gandalf and Thorin. I’ll miss them all.

“The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies” gets four stars out of five.

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There are a bunch of movies coming out as Christmas arrives this week. Below are trailers for them and, if I have time, I’ll see and review one of them.

The Gambler—

The Imitation Game—

Into the Woods—