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Sherlock Holmes Week Bonus: Benedict Cumberbatch in “A Study in Pink” (2010)

SherlockDirector: Paul McGuigan

Writer: Steven Moffat, based on the novel A Study in Scarlet by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Cast: Benedict Cumberbatch, Martin Freeman, Lisa McAllister, Mark Gatiss, Rupert Graves, Phil Davies, Una Stubbs, Louie Brealey, Vinette Robinson

Plot: Returning from active duty in Afghanistan, Dr. John Watson (Martin Freeman) is having trouble recovering from a bullet wound, a limp, and post-traumatic stress disorder. His therapist even suggests he begin a blog as a means of coping, but John insists nothing interesting happens to him. While searching for an apartment, an old friend introduces him to consulting detective Sherlock Holmes (Benedict Cumberbatch). Sherlock quickly deduces a great deal of information about John, leaving the man off-balance, but somehow persuades him to accept a flat with him at 221B Baker Street. John is still acclimating to Sherlock when he is called out to investigate a murder. He invites John to join him, and they find an apparent suicide victim, the fourth such in recent weeks. As Sherlock pieces clues together, John is approached by a Detective Sally Donovan (Vinette Robinson) who warns him to stay away from Sherlock, who she believes to be a psychotic waiting to snap.

John is summoned into a car by a beautiful woman calling herself Anthea (Lisa McAllister). She takes him to a man (Mark Gatiss) who offers John  great deal of money to report on Sherlock’s activities. John refuses and returns to Sherlock, who wants him to send a text to the dead woman’s mobile phone in an effort to trap the killer. The two stake out a restaurant and chase the presumed killer, but instead find an American tourist getting out of a taxicab.

Returning home, Sherlock is approached by Detective Inspector Lestrade (Rupert Graves), using a fake drug bust as an excuse to claim any clues Sherlock may have uncovered. As they bicker, a taxicab arrives for Sherlock, even though he didn’t call for one. The clues assemble in Sherlock’s mind and he accompanies the cab driver (Phil Davies), who he realizes is the killer. The cabbie explains that he’s been employed by a benefactor to play a game with his victims, challenging them to select from two identical pills, one of which is poison. They will then each take a pill, and one will die. Thus far, the cabbie has never lost, and as he is terminally ill, has no fear of the game. His benefactor will give money to his children for each murder he successfully commits. Sherlock makes his choice, but hesitates in taking the pill. In that second, John (who has trailed them) shoots the cabbie from a window across the street. Sherlock tries to get the cabbie to tell him if he made the right choice, then forces him to tell him the name of his benefactor. The cabbie screams “Moriarity!” before he dies.

As the police clean up the crime scene, the man who tried to bribe John appears – it’s Sherlock’s older brother Mycroft, a high-ranking government official. As Sherlock and John walk away, Mycroft orders Anthea to upgrade their surveillance status to grade 3.

Thoughts: This is the pilot episode of the BBC TV series Sherlock, which has turned out six episodes in four years, because showrunner Steven Moffat hates us (like the wait between Doctor Who seasons isn’t bad enough). I’ll use it, however, to stand in for the series as a whole for the sake of discussion. Despite the fact that we’ve only gotten six episodes, nine hours of Sherlock as of this writing, it’s quickly become one of my favorite interpretations of the character. Moffat has taken the basic trappings of Holmes and placed it in modern-day London, showing a Holmes that has no qualms about using modern science and technology as a tool to solve crimes. The show makes frequent – almost constant – use of cell phones and computers, and trading Watson’s career as a magazine writer for a blogger is a really nice touch that allows Moffat to keep up the pretense of Holmes becoming a semi-celebrity even in a world where nobody really pays much attention to magazines anymore.

Cumberbatch and Freeman are virtually flawless as Holmes and Watson. Cumberbatch has a wild-haired, youthful energy that befits his interpretation of Holmes as a man whose brain functions so far ahead of the world around him that he’s desperate for any distraction to escape soul-crushing boredom. Similar to the cell phone example, Moffat and company have found a lot of nice visual tricks to use to demonstrate how Holmes’s brain is piecing together all of the clues that surround him, but which escape the common mind.

Freeman’s Watson, when we first meet him, is a man very much on the brink. He’s been unable to adapt to life outside of the Army, and has a quiet desperation of his own. The most clever bits, however, come when Mycroft diagnoses his ailment: Watson’s therapist believes he’s suffering from PSTD as a result of his war experience. Mycroft, however, realizes that Watson’s feelings of depression aren’t because the war left him scarred, it’s because he misses the excitement. It makes for a fine marriage between Sherlock and John (who call each other by their first names here, unlike most other incarnations), and the two actors have a remarkable chemistry together.

What’s great about the structure of a television show, however, is that it allows us to watch this relationship develop over time. In every other version of Holmes we’ve discussed this week, we picked up their adventures long after Holmes and Watson come together. In fact the version in which the relationship is most central (the Downey/Law movie from 2009), we see a Watson who’s ready to move on from that life. This is the first film version we’ve looked at that takes their relationship from its very beginning as Doyle did with his stories. Again, we’ve only had six episodes, but those six episodes have covered a lot of time for the characters, and there’s been a very believable growth and evolution between the two characters. By the end of episode six, when tragedy strikes, the pain we see is true, and genuine, and deeply affecting to the audience as well.

The show has picked up on most of the major characters from the Holmes mythos – Lestrade and Mrs. Hudson are there from the beginning, Irene Adler (Lara Pulver) made a great appearance in the season two premiere, and Andrew Scott’s Moriarity was a fantastic, believable threat to Holmes. Each episode has taken one of the original Holmes stories as inspiration, but that inspiration is often extremely loose, providing little more than a jump-off point for a much more contemporary story.

And all of that is to the good. Season three is filming right now (or may even be finished, I’m not sure), but as of yet there’s been no announcement from the BBC as to when it’s going to air. If you haven’t watched this show and you enjoy different interpretations of Holmes, you’ve got time to catch up. All six episodes are available streaming from Netflix and on Amazon Prime. You can knock them all out in a weekend marathon. And you’ll thank yourself for it.

The first Reel to Reel study, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and Smashwords.com bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!

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Gut Reactions: Star Trek Into Darkness (2013)

74202_10151312194336999_1827486701_nDirector: J.J. Abrams

Writer: Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman & Damon Lindeloff

Cast: Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Zoe Saldana, Karl Urban, Simon Pegg, John Cho, Benedict Cumberbatch, Anton Yelchin, Bruce Greenwood, Peter Weller, Alice Eve, Noel Clarke

Plot: Starfleet is rocked by a terrorist attack orchestrated by the mysterious John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch). As he escapes across the galaxy, James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) and the crew of the USS Enterprise begin a desperate chase to bring him to justice. And to say anything else would be majorly spoilery, so let’s pretend I’ve recapped the entire movie for a moment and wait until after you see the spoiler line below before I say anything else too specific, shall we?

Thoughts: When J.J. Abrams rebooted the Star Trek franchise in 2009, fans of previous incarnations seemed to fall squarely into one of two camps. On one hand, there were those die-hards who felt like the liberties and changes taken with nearly 50 years of canon went too far to be acceptable and couldn’t find enjoyment in the movie. On the other, there were those who were willing to accept the Abrams Trek as a different continuity, inspired by but not beholden to the original, and were therefore more forgiving of the changes. Although I certainly understand the feelings of those in the first camp, I steadfastly belong to the second. I really enjoyed the 2009 Star Trek, and although I tried to keep my expectations reasonable for the follow-up film Star Trek Into Darkness, upon finally seeing it, I think I liked this one even more.

Some general spoiler-free thoughts before I get into the real hardcore nerd analysis that will scare half of you away. This is most definitely not your classic Star Trek. Not only is the tone very different – more high-octane, rapid-fire action, and while the philosophy is still there it’s much more subtle and hidden under flashy set pieces and a hell of a lot of lens flares – but there are certain things in the film that just wouldn’t work based on the physics of the original series. (For example, it was well established that starships weren’t designed to operate in a planetary atmosphere, let alone go through some of the things we saw in this movie.) I had to make a conscious choice to let go of that sort of thing, because if you can’t, there’s really no chance of enjoying the new series. Having made that choice, though, I’m glad I did, because the spirit of this new Trek is incredibly exciting to me.

Abrams’s version of Trek places its emphasis on action. There are some brilliant sequences here, both in the CGI-heavy outer space arena and in more practical moments of hand-to-hand combat, all of which look good. The cast, once again, is great. Karl Urban has encapsulated DeForest Kelley’s Leonard McCoy in a way that would have been impossible to believe not long ago. Simon Pegg’s Scotty very much has the soul of Jimmy Doohan’s, and brings in some much-needed comic relief during the more serious moments of the film. Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto as Kirk and Spock, of course, are still the stars of the series. Each of them has a character that’s more of a tangent to the original than some of the other cast members – you can see the blueprints of William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy in their performances, but they’ve been dressed differently. More about that in the spoiler section, though.

Benedict Cumberbatch, the man with the most British name in human history, steps into the villain’s role in this film and really steals the show. There’s a taste of his character from Sherlock here, in that he’s the smartest man in the room and he knows it, but replace Sherlock’s inability to empathize with an innate savagery and deep passion for his people (and hatred of virtually anyone else), and you’ve got someone who is scary as hell. Cumberbatch is not only a lot of fun to watch on screen, but terribly menacing at what he does.

Finally, a word for Michael Giacchino, who in a relatively short time has very much earned a place next to the likes of John Williams and Danny Elfman as one of the great movie composers. Bringing back both the classic Trek theme and the new theme he composed for the 2009 movie, Giacchino’s score fits the action and energy of this movie perfectly. He and Abrams have worked together several times now, on Super 8 and the Mission: Impossible films, plus on the TV show Lost. Add to that an impressive body of work for Pixar, and it has become very easy to put together a playlist of the greatest Giacchino scores ever.

Okay, I’m pretty much itching to get into the spoiler stuff, so those of you who haven’t seen the movie yet may want to head out. In closing, I really liked this movie, but I think a person’s enjoyment of it will depend largely on how they feel about Abrams’s new Trek timeline in general. If you liked the 2009 movie, this one will knock your socks off. If you didn’t, there’s nothing here that will change your mind.

And that’s that. Spoilers begin after the line:

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In Into Darkness, we see an Enterprise crew that has been together for a little while now, but Chris Pine’s Jim Kirk has yet to let go of the wild, rebellious streak that defines him. While there’s something to be said for the character’s daring, he doesn’t know where the line is and he doesn’t understand what he did wrong when he crosses it. In this film, we see a real journey for the character. He sees firsthand what happens when somebody goes too far, and the horrific consequences of someone who isn’t willing to accept responsibility for his actions. Peter Weller’s Admiral Marcus is a nice counterpoint to Kirk in this – although he’s one of the ones who comes down hard on Kirk for breaking the rules early, at the end he becomes a reflection of what might be if an officer is left unchecked. As a result, we’re left with a slightly changed Kirk at the end – not one who will be unwilling to flout the rules for what he feels is right, but one who will be more aware of the consequences of his actions. Pine’s Kirk isn’t Shatner’s Kirk, but the man he is at the beginning of this movie wants to hide breaking the rules, while at the end I believe he will become the man who does the right thing but is willing to take the heat for it (as Shatner’s Kirk did in the original Star Trek III and Star Trek IV).

On the other hand, Zachary Quinto’s Spock has taken a rather wide curve away from Leonard Nimoy’s version, and I somewhat think that may be a direct response to Nimoy’s presence. Although Spock’s struggle between his Vulcan logic and human emotion was always at the forefront of his character, this movie really does show us a greater depth of struggle than Nimoy traditionally had. Quinto’s Nimoy has maintained a romantic relationship with Uhura (Zoe Saldana) for some time now – Nimoy’s Spock never had any such connection – and he makes it explicitly clear during the film that he fights to suppress his emotions. He also fails, and fails big, when Kirk dies saving the Enterprise, blowing up with rage and tearing across San Francisco to take down Cumberbatch’s Khan.

Ah yes, Khan. Let’s talk about Khan, shall we? This is one of those times where I sort of bemoan what the internet has become. While it’s a great communication tool, it can sometimes ruin surprises. From the minute a sequel to the 2009 movie was announced, people started asking “Will it have Khan?” When Benedict Cumberbatch was announced as playing the villain, people asked, “Does he play Khan?” When they said his character’s name was “John Harrison,” people asked, “But he’s really Khan, right?” I can’t blame Abrams and the rest of the cast and crew for lying – there had to be some attempt at surprise – but they were fighting a losing battle from the beginning.

Like the rest of the cast, Cumberbatch’s Khan isn’t quite the same man as the original series Khan. His accent isn’t as ridiculous and he never takes his shirt off to reveal a plastic chest, for example. Also, he’s not as upfront about his intentions as Khan Classic. He’s sneakier, more manipulative, toying with the lives of others to orchestrate events in the direction he wants them to go. In case the dedication at the end of the film doesn’t make it clear enough, this is a Post 9-11 Khan, and in that way, he’s scary. He’s also a lot of fun to watch, tearing through a squad of Klingons almost singlehandedly, and helping Kirk in their freefall through space between the Enterprise and Marcus’s warship.

This film uses Cumberbatch very well, but he’s not nearly the only callback to the original series’ two Khan stories. Technically, this is more analogous to the “Space Seed” episode of the TV show (certainly in terms of timeline), but Abrams and the writers never passed up an opportunity to remind people of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. An early scene has Quinto’s Spock reminding us that “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few,” for instance, but from there the film pulls a nice switcheroo on us. Instead of Kirk watching helplessly as Spock dies to save the Enterprise, the reverse happens, with Pine’s Kirk dying to save the ship. The death, like everything else in this movie, reminds us of the original but kicks it up with more action and a heavier dose of special effects, but the result is the same: two men on opposite sides of a pane of glass, one of them dying, one of them grieving, both of them admitting to a friendship that stupid male ego or a suppression of emotion has left unspoken until now. Then we get one more callback – Spock borrowing Shatner’s bloodcurdling howl of “KHAAAAAAAAAN!” just before the final action sequence.

There was one more callback worth mentioning: Alice Eve as Carol Marcus. Sure, they tried to pretend she was somebody else when she first showed up (Carol “Wallace,” her mother’s maiden name), but like Cumberbatch as Khan there could never really be any doubt. This is the new timeline equivalent to the mother of Kirk’s son. Unfortunately, she’s one of the few things in the film that’s kind of wasted. She’s there to look hot in short skirts and underwear (which I’m male enough to admit she is very successful at doing), but she adds very little to the story. It’s likely that Abrams is setting her up to play a larger role in the series down the line, which I’m fine with. Considering how he found great moments for virtually every other player – including Scotty, Sulu and Chekov –it’s kind of a shame they couldn’t do the same for her.

The callbacks, by the way, may seem a little silly to some. They may seem a little over the top. They may seem like the filmmakers are winking at the camera. There’s a reason for that: they are. But they’re over the top and winking in a way that’s really acceptable to me. I think they work, and not just because I’m a big nerd and love that sort of thing (although I am). There’s an actual, honest, in-universe excuse for it if you look back at the first movie. Nimoy, as “Spock Prime” (as they’re calling him now) says that the altered timeline is trying to course-correct a little bit. Although there have been irreparable changes to the timestream, like the destruction of Vulcan, the universe itself is trying to adhere to the old timelime as much as it can. That’s the reason the same characters that assembled as the Enterprise crew in the old timeline all happened to wind up on the ship together in the new one as well. If you extrapolate that, it’s easy to explain the renewed conflict with Khan, Kirk’s introduction to Carol, and even Kirk’s death. (Since Spock wasn’t in place to die in this timeline, the universe found a substitute. And as Kirk, like Spock, was going to come back from the dead anyway, that was okay.) It may be more metaphysical than science fictional, but I like the idea of these characters being tied together by fate, bound by destiny. They are, to borrow a word from Stephen King, Ka-Tet, and they will be Ka-Tet in any timeline in which they happen to exist. These people are together because they’re supposed to be. And there’s something a little inspiring and very comforting about that.

So anyway, yeah, I really liked this movie. I can’t wait to see it again. And although I know Abrams might be a little busy soon with that “other” Star franchise, I really hope they find a way to bring him back to the helm of the Enterprise at least one more time.

The first Reel to Reel study, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and Smashwords.com bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!