Thursday, March 25, 2010

Blu Ray review: Sherlock Holmes (2009)

Sherlock Holmes
128 minutes
rated PG-13
Available April 30th from Warner on DVD, Blu Ray, OnDemand, and iTunes download.

by Scott Mendelson

It's a rare thing to get generally decent reviews, open to $62 million, slowly but surely cross $200 million domestic and $500 million worldwide, win a Golden Globe for lead actor and still end up with no respect. But that is the fate that faces Guy Ritchie's Sherlock Holmes as it makes its way to home video. Completely overshadowed by Avatar, this relatively successful franchise starter had to deal with constantly being referred to as 'the other movie' in a holiday season that it expected to dominate. Oversold as a slam-bang action adventure that retrofitted the world's greatest detective as a Playstation 3/Twitter/Facebook friendly action star, the film reveals itself as a relatively character driven detective story that has only a token amount of gratuitous action.

While Ritchie's film is a flawed and often messy picture, it is an interesting piece of work and contains two surprisingly challenging lead performances. Come what may, Robert Downey Jr. resists the urge to simply play Holmes as Tony Stark in period London, as his work has a certain morose and low-key desperation at its core. His Holmes is a sad, confused man who has realized that his uncommon intellect and obsessive nature has come at a cost, as it has rendered him completely at odds with the world around him. He rarely speaks above a whisper, often mumbles, and takes no real joy in what he does aside from the relief at temporarily being useful. Contrasted with that is Jude Law's delightful turn as Dr. John Watson. While countless prior adaptions has rendered Watson as a bumbling fool, this film gets it right. Holmes may be an anti-social genius, but Watson is bloody brilliant too, but with an ability to actually enjoy his life and take pleasure in his relationships. If this sounds familiar to TV fans, now you know who Dr. Gregory House and Dr. James Wilson are based on.

To the film's credit, the film is surprisingly light on spectacle, with only a handful of action set pieces and only one completely gratuitous action detour (a large-scale scene of combat, chase, and property destruction at the halfway point that resolves nothing and reveals no new information). The majority of the film is what you'd expect: Sherlock Holmes and John Watson working together to solve a case. While the case in question is relatively mundane (and surprisingly similar to Young Sherlock Holmes), it makes a token amount of sense when all is revealed. And, without giving too much away, the film earns major kudos for ending not merely with a bloated action climax, but with a long scene of Holmes explaining in intricate detail just how he deduced all of the clues (Adrian Monk would be proud).

While the film has serious pacing issues (it takes nearly the entire first act for the game to become afoot) and most of the supporting cast is wasted (Rachel McAdams is the very definition of the 'token love interest'), the picture earns its keep by placing emphasis on character and mystery rather than pyrotechnics and spectacle. Above all else, the film is about a deep friendship between two colleagues that allows them to do great things together. Come what may, the film feels very much like a Sherlock Holmes picture. And while the climactic sequel-set up is laughably over-baked, this is a franchise that is worth developing. I genuinely look forward to the sequel.

Grade: B

If ever there was a case where the Blu Ray looked better than the theatrical prints, this is it. On the opening week of play, countless audience members (including myself) complained of washed-out and muddy visuals that lacked detail and vibrancy. It would seem that the main culprits were theater owners and their refusal to show films projected with the correct light levels. The Blu Ray picture looks relatively gorgeous, with vivid colors and every bit of detail that was missing from the theatrical print I viewed. Of course, this is not Spider-Man and the main colors of choice are subdued black, gray, and blue. But what is onscreen is beautifully and accurately rendered. And that mumbling and low-volume whispering that Downey Jr engages in for much of the picture, further hampered by his thick accent? Well, either you can turn up the volume on your home system (English 5.1 DTS HDMA, French 5.1 or Spanish 5.1) or turn on the subtitles (English, French, or Spanish) of your choosing. With improved visuals and alternatives to trying to decipher Downey's low, muddled accent, the home viewing experience for Sherlock Holmes infinitely improves on the theatrical one. If theaters want people to actually return to the theaters, they really ought to start showing films at the proper light levels.

The extras are more a question of quality than quantity. Aside from opening trailers, a digital copy, and a DVD copy of the feature (the last quite useful for trips to the in-laws), the Blu Ray comes with just two bonus features. The first, a fifteen-minute making-of is pretty standard pr-fluff. The second feature is Warner's standard 'Maximum Movie Mode'. For those unaware, this is basically a visual variation on the standard audio commentary, where the director stands in front of the screen and narrates with various visuals (illustrations, behind the scenes videos, interviews, etc) pop up in the appropriate places. The track isn't quite as illuminating as McG's Terminator Salvation chit-chat, but there are goodies to be found. Most refreshing is Ritchie's comments concerning the trend of studios turning over mainstream pictures to singular filmmakers and pretty much getting out of their way. Ironically, with a few exceptions, Warner Bros is really the studio most willing to do just that. Also available to view separately are about thirty-one minutes of 'Focus Points' segments, which are also available within the Maximum Movie Mode.

So, the film is pretty good, the technical specs are actually superior to my theatrical experience, and the disc has at least one terrific supplemental feature. Proceed accordingly. Oh, and if you do buy this and know how to navigate BD-Live and what not, the 'live-community screening' (with Robert Downey Jr. answering online questions) will take place on April 1st at 9pm eastern-standard time.


Heather Moore said...

It's Dr. James Wilson isn't it?

Scott Mendelson said...

It is now, Heather. Thanks for catching that.


Scott Mendelson said...

It is now, Heather. Thanks for catching that.



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