Their First Assignment
After Robert Downey Jr. put comic book films back on the map with Iron Man, I was thoroughly on the RDJ train. Then I heard what his next big film role was going to be. Another super genius with substance abuse issues. A character who might arguably be one of the first ever superheroes. The immortal Sherlock Holmes. Despite everything Downey Jr. had accomplished with Tony Stark, I was still nervous about him tackling the world’s greatest detective. Hell, how many American actors can you count that pull off a convincing British accent? And Downey Jr. would be under the direction of Guy Ritchie. Another man looking for a career rebirth after hitting a rough patch. Then I saw the trailer for the film. Holy crap! That was all I could say. It was everything I imagined in my head a Sherlock Holmes movie would be like, but with something extra. An energy. An excitement. A PULSE. A PULSE that Ritchie, in his early directing days, always delivered. A PULSE in which Robert Downey Jr. thrives in. Sherlock Holmes was the Sherlock for me.
As I’ve said in my review for the BBC show Sherlock, 2009’s Sherlock Holmes was a film that I could appreciate separately and equally with the other incarnations that followed. As time has passed the difference between BBC Sherlock and RDJ Sherlock have grown. RDJ Sherlock shares more similarities with the vastly underrated (Even by me) CBS show Elementary than it does with its British equivalent. That is mainly due to characterizations and relationships. Where Cumberbatch exudes stoic intensity, both Robert Downey Jr. and Jonny Lee Miller are playful to the point of annoyance and crazed to the point of concern. Their brilliance seems more like the lasting side effects of some illegally imbibed elixir. And that is what I like about them, Robert Downey Jr. more so. Predictably, Downey Jr. brought to the forefront more of Sherlock’s drug issues. His darker stuff. And he brought back his physicality. Physicality most people were unaware of at the time. Some of the so-called Sherlock Holmes purists saw the trailer and quickly said it was a dumbing down and shoehorning of action into a Sherlock Holmes film. Unbeknownst to them, Downey Jr. did his homework. Sherlock Holmes creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote in several stories that Holmes had some fighting skill. It is turned up in this film, however, it comes from a place of fact. It more or less showed that Downey Jr. wasn’t sleepwalking through an action role. He was totally making it his own.
I put a picture of another actor at the top with Robert Downey Jr. because of his importance to Downey Jr.’s performance. Jude Law’s portrayal of Dr. John Watson is one my favorites in any incarnation. Downey Jr.’s humor is undeniable, but it works more so because of how Law plays off of him and sets him up. On the BBC show and the CBS show, we are introduced to Watson and Holmes as they are introduced to each other. In Sherlock Holmes, however, we meet Watson and Holmes in the middle of their relationship. So, Law and Downey Jr.’s chemistry not only has to work but feel like its been working for a while. A task Law and Downey Jr. completely did for me.
This film was also the first time I really began to recognize the awesomeness that is Mark Strong. He kind of fell into the background of the large ensemble cast of the first film I saw him in, RocknRolla. Strong here gets to play a villain that felt like a true threat to Holmes. Lord Blackwood is equal parts creepy and entertaining. It would have been easy to fire off the infamous Moriarty in the first film, which they do hint to. However, I think it was more important to establish Holmes and Watson, while still giving them an enemy that is still a great foil. Strong helps accomplish that. The one place I think cast chemistry fails is between Robert Downey Jr. and Rachel McAdams as Irene Adler. I’m not a McAdams hater, and I don’t think McAdams is horrible in this. I just felt that McAdams’ energy did not and probably could not equal Downey Jr.’s. It is more a criticism of casting than anything. Adler is supposed to be Sherlock Holmes’ kryptonite. McAdams just didn’t have enough charm or charisma to make me buy their relationship being an actual problem for Holmes.
I was so happy for Guy Ritchie after this film came out. You have to understand, Lock, Stock, & Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch are two of my favorite films. Watching him make the film Swept Away with his ex-wife Madonna was like seeing a close friend of yours date that girl you know is gonna f%$k his life up. Revolver has a small cult following, but is an overly convoluted mess. RocknRolla gave me hope that the Ritchie I loved was still in there somewhere. Sherlock Holmes really got him to flex his cinematic muscles again. The set pieces, the style, the humor, and the action scenes are terrific. The criticism for their being so much action is akin to the criticism JJ Abrams received for his Star Trek films. To me the action does not take away from the mystery Holmes is trying to solve at all. Every action sequence is always in service to the story. And the bit that Ritchie uses to show Holmes working out his movements before actually doing them was a clever touch that I had never seen before.
Robert Downey Jr.’s Sherlock Holmes, for some odd reason, gets a cynical bum rap that I wholeheartedly don’t understand. Not only is his version of Holmes one of the most accurate to the books, the film is fun, entertaining, PULSE pounding, and underratedly smart. There isn’t any time to waste then…widen your gaze…watch it…if you dismissed it…watch it again…then tell me I’m wrong.
I haven’t been the most feverish fan of ‘out there’ shows like X-Files, Lost, or Fringe, but I have watched all three shows to completion. I mainly started watching to see what all the hype was about, and I eventually finished to figure out where each show was going. The results for shows like that, unfortunately tend to always be underwhelming. Why? High concept shows are harder for audiences and networks to digest. It’s much easier to plop some cheaper to make reality show/carbon copy cop procedural on Thursday nights than an ‘out there’ show that goes in a wild new direction. Networks give high concept, ‘out there’ shows just so much rope before they start interfering. After the allure of ‘the new show’ wears off, networks move these shows to crazy time slots, under promote them, and quietly execute them from the line-up without a peep. To avoid that, showrunners of these shows are forced to reveal huge plot points too early in order to keep viewership up. They betray established characters by shoehorning in romantic relationships or deaths to boost ratings. Ultimately though, showrunners fall into the habit of losing focus and setting their bar so high, they can’t possibly give their viewers a truly satisfying ending. Thankfully some networks have begun understanding shows like that DO have an audience and DO need their space. They understand that shows like that DON’T need to rush and DON’T need gimmicks. They just need freedom and time to tell their stories. Cable has been that refuge here in the states recently. However, UK television has been providing that creative environment for as long as I’ve been watching television. That is why shows like Misfits, and Orphan Black thrive there. Hell, Doctor Who may be the most ‘out there’ show ever made and it’s been around for seventy years in the UK. Series one of Utopia has not only thrown it’s hat in the ring with the other ‘out there’ shows I’ve mentioned, but also stands out as one of the most crazy, unpredictable, original, and UNSETTLING shows I’ve ever seen.
How do I describe Utopia? Hmmmm. Okay, let me try this. Four fans of a strange, impossible to find, comic book go on the run when a shadowy government agency tries to hunt down and kill anyone who knows about or is in possession of the book. The book itself, being a tome or blueprint for some evil master plan to be enacted upon the planet. Sound silly? Well, it kind of is. However, from the first scene of the first episode of the first series, Utopia takes your preconceived notions and whacks them over the head with a baseball bat by showing you a disturbing and UNSETTLING interrogation/multiple murder. The silly is the smokescreen this show uses to catch you off guard time and time again. The graphic nature of the violence comes out of nowhere and grabs your attention. It is used like a super strict nun’s ruler over a parochial school classroom. The thing about the violence, however, is that it is always in service of the story or the situation. It is not violence for violence sake. It is violence that is a result of things that occurred or the catalyst for things that need to happen. I say that because of a controversy this show was swept up in due to the events of it’s third episode and the horrible events of Sandy Hook. I read the story and then watched the scene and I did not see it as a glorifying act. To just chalk it up to irresponsible glorification is a lazy way of viewing it. However, this is a discussion for another day.
The UNSETTLING nature of this show is apparent as well in the cinematography. I don’t usually get into the technical ways things are shot too much, but I think it deserves mentioning here due to the purposefulness of it. Each episode of Utopia is in a psychedelic ultra high contrast. (An LSD user’s heaven.) Shots themselves are nearly always oddly framed and camera movements are sometimes jarringly unconventional. You could be watching a scene of two people talking, and they’ll be completely out of focus from a high angle while an obligatory wall fixture on a nearby building is in focus. A character will be talking directly into camera almost completely obscured by the sun’s glare over their shoulder. Negative space takes center stage more times than not as characters are given tremendous headroom or moved almost completely to one side of the frame. There are super wide establishing shots of sickeningly colorful scenery where the main characters are just dark specks on the horizon. Your eyes in every scene will be darting around trying to find out where the danger will come from. It might be creator Dennis Kelly’s attempt to mimic comic book visuals themselves or just a way to spit in the face of conventional filmmaking in order to stand out. Either way, it oddly works for Utopia, given it’s strangeness.
The performances on the show are all solid. A blessing, seeing as there are some unbelievable situations that happen in this show. However, I never doubt the truthfulness of each character for a second. Nathan Stewart-Jarrett proves that the charm and watchability he displayed on the aforementioned UK show Misfits wasn’t a fluke. Alexandra Roach shines with each witty one-liner she gets to drop. Paul Haggins and child actor Oliver Woollford put in tremendous work. (Though I hope Oliver is eventually given even more things to do on this show.) However, there are three standouts, in my opinion, that give performances you might not have seen before. They are Adeel Akhtar as Wilson Wilson, Neil Maskell as Arby and Fiona O’Shaughnessy as the infamous Jessica Hyde.
We’ve seen conspiracy theory computer geeks done to death in film and televison before. But there is something about Akhtar’s Wilson that separates him from the rest. He doesn’t have the same angst and bitterness portrayed in those geeks before him. He seems happy and at peace with his life. Sure he spouts out some paranoid governmental rumor now and then, but when we meet him, he genuinely likes himself and his family. That warmness helps you relate to him more than if he were angry at the world and didn’t trust anyone. Fiona O’Shaughnessy has the task of playing the girl with all the secrets. The badass. The loner and rebel. Jessica Hyde is like a darker cross between River Tamm from Firefly and Leeloo from The Fifth Element. There are times when her curiosity, brutal honesty, and compassion make her appear very sweet. However, there are other times when it is revealed that she has been feigning those emotions to get what she wants. Thus, leaving us unclear of her true nature. And when she wants to, Jessica Hyde can be downright frightening. O’Shaughnessy plays her like a sphinx most of the time. But when true emotions do come, she pulls them off without shortchanging the character. I’ve talked about the talents of Neil Maskell before in my review of the equally UNSETTLING Kill List. What he does here in Utopia, however, is truly amazing. He takes such a despicable, sociopathic, hauntingly scary, unrelatable character like Arby the hitman and somehow gets you to sympathize with him. Some of the…check that…most of the show’s deplorable acts are done by Arby. You think that he is a lock to be the shows main uncompromising villain. But by the third episode you’ll begin to rethink your feelings on him. How Maskell does that with a character that is a step above robotic, is beyond me. Of course the writing is a huge factor, but there is something beyond Maskell’s eyes that reflects a man that is just lost in himself. A man who knows he is a monster but can’t help his nature. It is a truly great character and performance you’ll be hard pressed to find on American television.
Utopia is an ‘out there’ show with a concept that is dark, UNSETTLING, interesting and very relevant to our society today. Thanks to UK television and a shorter but more potent 6 episode a season quota, it has enough rope to truly tell it’s story. Hopefully, this time, it will be a show with a satisfying ending. Buy a box of chocolate covered raisins….stay away from spoons….make sure to know where Jessica Hyde is….watch it…then tell me I’m wrong.
You might think I’m a little late to the party, but I wanted to finish watching the first season of BBC’s Orphan Black before getting into it in depth. However, from the first two minutes of the pilot episode of the freshman show, I was completely ADDICTED. This is a show that grabs you immediately and does not let go. It is concept high and, more importantly, a proverbial clinic for outstanding acting performances. Orphan Black was recommended to me by a friend of mine a few months back. His biggest selling point to me was, “Its on the BBC.” Despite the recent stellar work on cable, most American shows are cop drama, medical drama, pop culture comedies, reality shows, lather, rinse, repeat. The BBC, however, seem to be the place I end up heading to for very original, high concept, well acted shows. Shows that don’t pull punches. Shows that take major chances. Shows that produce unsung, cult status, acting performances. (See: Misfits, Luther, Sherlock, The Thick Of It) There is a reason Hollywood producers try and bring these shows stateside, but they mostly fail. (See: Coupling, InBetweeners, Life On Mars) They fail because they missed the ‘take risks’ part their predecessors had done. The BBC has bigger testicles to stick with high concept shows that strive to be different, where NBC, CBS, ABC, and FOX always go the way the wind blows. This is a conversation for another day. The BBC’s Orphan Black stands tall as a great new show that is on the cusp of being the next big thing.
THOUGH O.B.’s REVEAL HAPPENS PRETTY EARLY ON…HUGE SPOILER ALERT!
Orphan Black is a Sci-Fi, Mystery, Drama, Comedy, Action, Thriller that revolves around a young misfit woman named Sarah realizing that she is one of several…..CLONES. Dun! Dun! Duuuuun!!! Sarah, through her own desperate attempt to reboot her life, steps into the shoes of a women she just figured looked like here. However, she quickly realizes she has actually stepped into a world of body enhancement cults, anti-technology cults, murder cover-ups, assassin/cop cat and mouse games, and suburban american drama. In essence, Orphan Black is one part X-Files, one part The Shield, and one part Desperate Housewives. Because these clones have been living completely different and separate lives from each other, it allows for some very interesting role reversals and identity switch circumstances. Sarah is the main character of course, but the show allows you to see situations through the eyes and perspective of her clone counterparts. Some friendly, some not so friendly and some psychotic enemies. Except for maybe the episode ‘Rookies’ from the animated Star Wars series, the concepts and fundamental analysis of cloning have rarely been touched on. Usually with crappy and apoplectic results. But Orphan Black is the first time I’ve seen a show or film really get to the meat of the matter. Raising some great scientific and moral questions about it and what actual identity means. And though the subtlety of the special effects and the way they pull it off transform this show into a must watch, it is the performances that makes Orphan Black truly stand apart.
I first saw Tatiana Maslany briefly in the Channing Tatum and Rachel McAdams movie The Vow. Don’t ask. Conjointly, she was a relative unknown to me. So, when I saw her as the star of this series, I was a little perplexed. Her resumé is pretty light. Should she be getting this big a vehicle? That question, again, was answered in the first ten minutes of the pilot. The Canadian born actress easily proves that she can tackle this dream role. I call it a dream role because any ambitious actor or actress would jump at the chance to play a part that allows you to play almost 6 different characters who are completely different from one another and also have their own varying degree of personality complexities. Sarah, the British con artist. Helena, the psychotic Ukranian assassin. Katja, the German socialite. Beth, the emotionally torn dirty cop. Alison, the cold soccer mom. Cosima, the grungy brainiac. I could go on. Maslany nails all of these characters so perfectly, you find yourself forgetting these parts are played by the same person. The real treat is when Maslany has to play one of the characters trying to pretend to be another one of the characters. The idiosyncrasies of each clone are so specific that you buy that one clone isn’t a perfect fit for the other. Maslany’s Emmy nomination is the biggest forgone conclusion since Daniel Day Lewis’s Lincoln. The other great performance opportunity the show grants you is watching other characters react to different versions of Maslany. None more awesome than Sarah’s orphanage brother Felix, played by the Jordan Gavaris. He, on paper, is the comic relief of the show. But his character has a depth and complexity all its own. His love and loyalty for his sister Sarah always shows, and his annoyance for her suburban housewife counterpart Alison shows as well. He also gets the best lines of the series. Unlike some of the other flamboyant characters on tv, however, Felix isn’t a cardboard cutout of clichés. He is no Sheldon from the unctuous Big Bang Theory. He feels real.
There are so many things about Orphan Black that I would love to get into. However, I don’t want to spoil the surprises any more than I have already. And trust me, there are plenty more. Each episode is like a hit of LSD. A brand new crazy experience every single time. And just as ADDICTIVE….um…or so I’ve heard. Seriously. I don’t do LSD. Really! Okay maybe there was that one time in Prague, but it was too dark in that nightclub to tell what Olga gave me. Though I did wake up naked in a TJ Max so….ahem…I digress. Tuck your genetically added tail between your legs…watch it…then tell me I’m wrong.
I am a big fan of Robert Downey Jr.’s Sherlock Holmes films. That may be because I think RDJ is my favorite actor working today. However, the best version of the famous detective is definitely the BBC series Sherlock. It is possible to be a fan of both the way I am because they do possess significant differences. And not the fact that the films are set during the 19th Century and tv show is set during modern day.
For example’s sake, here is Robert Downey Jr.’s Sherlock. And here is Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock. Robert Downey Jr. nails the manic and playfulness of Sherlock Holmes. While Cumberbatch, an actor who will be a household name after next year’s Star Trek 12, nails Sherlock Holmes’s cold stoic BRILLIANCE. Both work tremendously. Downey Jr. gives Sherlock a bit of a giddiness at his own intellect when explaining clues. Cumberbatch treats it more like an uncontrollable condition. His delivery feeling similar to someone fed up answering a nagging five year old who constantly keeps asking “why?”.
Both Jude Law and Martin Freeman are equally great as Watson. Law, mostly for theatrical sake, plays Watson a bit more over the top while Freeman keeps Watson’s frustrations with Sherlock more internal. Though, we do see Freeman’s Watson at the beginning of his relationship with Sherlock while Law’s Watson is well used to him by now.
All that said, the most important thing in creating a great incarnation of Sherlock Holmes is getting the chemistry right. And Sherlock does this as well if not better than the films. While the films give you more style, the tv show gives you more substance. Its mystery first and set pieces second. Thats what puts this ahead.
The series does cheat its substantiveness a bit by having each season broken down into three 90 minute episodes. They play like mini movies and are each enjoyably different while still connected through a ongoing plot thread. Don’t be alarmed by the modern day setting either. Sherlock fits into our world smoothly and creates interesting situations that 19th Century Sherlock couldn’t do. Like interrupting a police press conference by texting all the reporters simultaneously the truth the police chief is leaving out.
That leads me to mention a storytelling device the editors use on the show. To illustrate how Sherlock’s mind works, the show uses in scene captions to draw the audience to his conclusions instead of having him always explaining everything. This is very well done, as apposed to how Tony Scott overuses it in some of his films…Domino comes to mind.
An American version of this modern day Sherlock Holmes is in the works now. However, I am sure it won’t have the same quality acting, writing, directing, and teeth this show has. You watch one episode and it’ll hook you. Go ahead…watch one…I’ll wait…….still waiting……..see? Tell me I’m wrong.