Watching The Detectives

Friday was kind of an odd, time-shifted day for me. There was a special, lunch show for a private party, for which I had taken off work, and then there was no show on Saturday. That played havoc enough on my body clock, but then, during a very late lunch, I found myself reading the delightful live-tweeting of the 2012 Olympics opening ceremony by a feverish Warren Ellis. Then, after an exhausted nap, I watched the same ceremony, time-delayed by NBC, and I was one of thousands who put in at least one tweet imploring Meredith Vieira and Matt Lauer to for God’s sake SHUT THE HELL UP. Then a few hours later the ceremony was broadcast on the West Coast, and the process started all over again.

After the Very Long Ceremony had ended (along with an impressively brisk Parade of Nations, during which our NBC louts informed what was wrong with each nation as they marched), my world consisted of grand spectacle marred by clueless blathering, and time seriously out of joint. I wanted to watch a movie, but I wanted something short and, hopefully undemanding. I really should have reached for one of the low-budget horror movies that used to be my stock in trade, but my eye fell upon a recent acquisition from a Half Price Books run, a movie I had seen on it initial theatrical run in 1975 and hated, a movie I was willing to give a second chance: The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother.

Curse my willingness to give things a second chance.

Released a year after Young Frankenstein and starring three of its major stars, we were expecting more of the same; but Smarter Brother never reaches its predecessors frantic heights, and in trying to do so, simply becomes tiresome. When your pre-credit gag involves an unconvincing physical joke followed by a poorly-dubbed Queen Victoria muttering, “Oh, shit,” you pretty much have your experience laid out before you.

Writer/director Gene Wilder is Sigerson Holmes (an arch nod to the Canon, at least), Holmes’ younger and extremely jealous brother; Marty Feldmann is Orville Sacker, Siggy’s assistant and a man with “photographic hearing”; and Madeline Khan is Jenny Hill, the MacGuffin that walks like a woman. The sublime Leo McKern is Professor Moriarty, and the usually reliable Roy Kinnear is his assistant.

The only thing worse than an unfunny comedy is an unfunny comedy with a cast this good. There is the occasional bit of business that raises a chortle from me, but they are few and far between.

I see that on the IMDb, there is a sizable number of people who love this movie. Well, good. I like everybody involved in this picture, and I’m glad that it found an audience. That audience is simply not me.

For a neck-injuring change of course, the next day I finally got to see The Dark Knight Rises, having managed to avoid all but one major spoiler. And by the time the spoiler would have paid off, I was so involved with the story that it didn’t matter, and the major payoff still caught me by surprise.

I found The Dark Knight Rises to be a very fitting trilogy ender, solid in execution. I prefer The Dark Knight, but then, that is more purely a Batman movie. Batman Begins and Dark Knight Rises are more properly Bruce Wayne movies. I enjoyed the call-backs to the earlier two movies, the unexpected guest shots, and agree with everyone that Anne Hathaway as Catwoman and Tom Hardy as Bane stole the show. Hardy, especially – respect to anyone who manages a performance that good with most of his face obscured.

Now to await the inevitable reboot and hope that it brings back the detective part of the character. The Nolan/Bale Batman was pretty much a ninja-trained reactionary, and we lost the portion of the character that studied criminology in various parts of the world along with the martial arts. Probably a minor fanboy cavil about what has been DC’s only really successful foray into the modern superhero cinema. Probably Nolan’s major achievement with this trilogy is producing a series of comic book movies that did not require much explanation to non-comics reading spouses.

Seeking to continue my Nolan buzz, Sunday night I pulled out my recently-acquired Blu-Ray of Insomnia, Nolan’s 2002 remake of Erik Skjoldbjærg’s 1997 movie of the same name (available on Criterion, no less). In an Internet discussion during the lead-up to Dark Knight Rises premiere, Insomnia was held up as Nolan’s weakest work, along with the rejoinder, “If Insomnia were my weakest work, I could die happy.”

You can, indeed, see why Nolan was drawn to the story. Al Pacino plays Will Dormer, an LA police detective who is sent to the town of Nightmute, Alaska, to help an old friend out on a murder investigation. Tagging along is Dormer’s partner, Hap Eckhart (Martin Donovan). Both men have been hustled out of LA ahead of an Internal Affairs investigation; Eckhart is going to cooperate with IA, but this endangers some of Dormer’s convictions, and, he feels, his very career. The stress of this and the fact that Nightmute is above the Arctic Circle and in its period of “white nights” – 24 hours sunlight – robs Dormer of any chance of sleep.

Dormer sets a wily trap for the murderer that fails due to some unfortunate incompetence on the part of the local police force (who, admittedly, have had to contend with nothing worse than drunks and wife beaters). This leads to a chase through a foggy beachfront which ends with one of the local cops wounded by the killer and Dormer accidentally shooting and killing Eckhart. Realizing that there is no way anyone will believe it was an accident, and finding the killer’s dropped handgun, he begins to manufacture a case that the killer was the culprit… until the killer calls Dormer in his hotel room, revealing that he witnessed Eckhart’s shooting.

Nolan is all about driven protagonists, and conveys Dormer’s increasing desperation and exhaustion very well. Pacino’s eternally haggard expression plays well into this, and I was actually concerned about the method actor’s health for a while. One thing that’s more satisfying in the consideration than in the witnessing is the matchup between Pacino and Robin Williams as the killer (oh, like that’s a spoiler. Who of the two top-billed actors doesn’t show up for a half-hour?). A pure method actor vs. an extreme extrovert.

But there’s not much in the way of pyrotechnics here. I’m always secretly delighted and not a little smug when people seem surprised that comedians are capable of doing a straight dramatic role. The good ones already understand timing and moving emotions, and the great clowns could always make you cry as well as make you laugh. personally, Williams burned me out ages ago, but I still like him in smaller, more restrained doses, like here and Gilliam’s The Fisher King.

Insomnia still has an identity crisis, though – the story’s tenor still feels Norwegian, somehow. That is, when I wasn’t thinking I was seeing an alternate universe’s version of the pilot for Twin Peaks. The fish out of water component of Dormer’s arc doesn’t really work, except when he’s being stymied by the cops of this podunk frontier town turning out to be better cops than anticipated, especially Hillary Swank’s eager Ellie Burr.

So that’s three Oscar winners in a not-bad but not-terrific remake; but as I said, mediocre Nolan is still better than most movies out in the Redbox, these days. It has made me much more interested in the original, bumping it up several tiers in the “To Be Watched” list.

I also suppose I should mention that Wally Pfister’s cinematography is done full justice on the Blu-Ray, as I was several times left gaping at the beauty of Alaska.

Here, have a completely misleading trailer:

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