Film

'Holmes' is Fine, if Flawed, Update


Sherlock Holmes

Director: Guy Ritchie
Cast: Robert Downey Jr., Jude Law, Rachel McAdams, Mark Strong, Kelly Reilly, Eddie Marsan
Rated: PG-13
Studio: Warner Bros.
Year: 2009
US date: 2009-12-25 (General release)
UK date: 2009-12-26 (General release)
Website
Trailer

2009 will be remembered as the year when two famed fictional franchises got that most questionable of big screen makeovers - the infamous re-imagining - and in the case of at least one potentially unknown quantity (J. J. Abrams brave Star Trek update) the verdict was fairly unanimous. While it's safe to say that Guy Ritchie's take on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's classic detective won't be garnering the same end-of-the-year honors as its interstellar counterpart, it's just as effective as the aforementioned modernized space opera. Indeed, Sherlock Holmes is just a single casting decision away from being another brilliant update. Instead, it's just a wonderful, if flawed, entertainment.

The set-up has Holmes (an excellent Robert Downey Jr.) and his assistant Watson (a marvelous Jude Law) at wits end. They have just solved a major multiple murder case involving the sinister Lord Blackwood (Mark Strong), and as he is prepared for execution, the pair is planning to split up. Our good doctor is getting engaging to long suffering girlfriend Mary, and Holmes is not happy about it. When a cemetery guard claims that Blackwood has risen from the dead, and when he is indeed spotted around London causing more dark mischief, the boys are back on the case. Complicating things is shrewd American super criminal named Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams). Not only has she thwarted Holmes on at least one previous occasion, she stole his heart as well. Now, as Blackwood plans to overthrow the British government, it is up to our dynamic duo to save the day.

The weakest link in Sherlock Holmes was not handing over the directorial reigns to UK Crime Guy Ritchie. He's actually well suited for putting his stylized spin on such stodgy Victorian fare. As he did with the British gangster film, Ritchie revitalizes the language of film while staying within the strict guidelines of this wannabe mainstream entertainment - and he manages magnificently. Nor was the hiring of American Downey Jr. a bad move. He can handle the accent, and brings enough contemporary swagger to make Holmes relevant again. There is no questioning Law, Strong, or Eddie Marsan as Inspector Lestrade. Each one is excellent, offering ample nuance and panache to their parts. No, what almost sinks this otherwise stellar experience in one Rachel McAdams. Cast as Holmes' love interest/endearing con artist nemesis, she's just too off kilter to sit solidly alongside her far more accomplished costars.

While it may not be fair to blame all Sherlock Holmes' failings on one particular person (after all, she was approved by Ritchie based on Downey's suggestion), it's clear that Ms. Adler does not belong in this story - at least, not as realized by Ms. McAdams. The actress suffers from what could best be described as Billy Pilgrim syndrome. She is unstuck in time, coming off as neither turn of the century nor contemporary. Instead, she can't be placed in a period, which is deadly for a film that relies on evoking a certain era to enliven its ideas. There is also a problem with her profile. As a character, Irene Adler is historically much more worldly wise and capable of matching Holmes one on one. McAdams looks like Downey's daughter, not his equal.

Every time she shows up, every time the script by Michael Robert Johnson, Anthony Peckham, and Simon Kinberg throws Irene into a scene, Sherlock Holmes struggles to stay fun. Granted, purists may balk at some of the other liberties taken, though this is one of the rare interpretations of the character that gets his internal process down pat. Even elements that people will think out of place (the underground boxing, the weaponry) all have a purpose in showing how Holmes relates to the world (deducing human nature) as well as to his friends (he fights to help Watson with his gambling debts, FYI). The companionship and teamwork we expect from duo is evident in every scene. The chemistry is undeniable. Then Ms. McAdams walks in and the carefully balanced cinematic brew goes substantially awry.

Still, Ritchie does his best to keep things lively. The narrative is just a MacGuffin, a means of getting Holmes and Watson to scour the London streets looking for clues. They run into all kinds of criminal types, always one step ahead of them intellectually, while constantly challenged physically. This is one of the most pro-active interpretations of the character ever. Instead of spending his time in deep thought contemplation, Holmes runs amuck, dishing out his own brand of well-considered justice with a wink and a wry smile. Downey is just delicious in the part, bringing that cool cockiness he showed in Iron Man to the role. But his Holmes is also troubled. This is a man who's on the brink of losing everything - his best friend, his social position…and maybe even his mind.

Luckily, Law is around to prop him up. This is one of the best versions of Watson ever, a clever man who uses his reputation (and talents) as a war hero to actually assist instead of simply standing back and whimpering. Many assume that Holmes and his platonic partner are all brain and no brawn. One of the best things about Ritchie's reinterpretation is that both men are made dimensional. Each one can outwit the standard criminal element. They can also kick ass when need be. Toss in Strong destroying the scenery with his merry Method mastication and you've got a jolly good regal romp. McAdams, thought, brings it all down to the realm of the retread whenever she appears - and that's really too bad.

Hollywood frequently allows a single filmmaking facet - script, star, production situation - to undermine an otherwise promising project. It says a great deal about everything else in Sherlock Holmes that, Rachel McAdams aside, the rest of the movie is magnificent. Will you cringe at seeing the famed detecting duo running through explosions like modern day action heroes? Maybe. Will the last act clash on a half-completed Tower Bridge remind you of dozens of indistinct Tinseltown blockbusters? Sure. Do Downey and Law take risks with characters that are beloved and embraced by millions? Yes. And does Ritchie occasionally indulge in the directorial tricks that have him loved/hated by audiences. Absolutely. Still, even with all these potential problems, Sherlock Holmes is heavenly. It's just too bad that a single creative decision costs this effort its status as a classic. It is, otherwise.

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In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

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Features

The Best Country Music of 2017

still from Midland "Drinkin' Problem" video

There are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. Here are ten of our favorites.

Year to year, country music as a genre sometimes seems to roll on without paying that much attention to what's going on in the world (with the exception of bro-country singers trying to adopt the latest hip-hop slang). That can feel like a problem in a year when 58 people are killed and 546 are injured by gun violence at a country-music concert – a public-relations issue for a genre that sees many of its stars outright celebrating the NRA. Then again, these days mainstream country stars don't seem to do all that well when they try to pivot quickly to comment on current events – take Keith Urban's muddled-at-best 2017 single "Female", as but one easy example.

Nonetheless, there are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. There are singers tackling deep, universal matters of the heart and mind. Artists continuing to mess around with a genre that can sometimes seem fixed, but never really is. Musicians and singers have been experimenting within the genre forever, and continue to. As Charlie Worsham sings, "let's try something new / for old time's sake." - Dave Heaton

10. Lillie Mae – Forever and Then Some (Third Man)

The first two songs on Lillie Mae's debut album are titled "Over the Hill and Through the Woods" and "Honky Tonks and Taverns". The music splits the difference between those settings, or rather bears the marks of both. Growing up in a musical family, playing fiddle in a sibling bluegrass act that once had a country radio hit, Lillie Mae roots her songs in musical traditions without relying on them as a gimmick or costume. The music feels both in touch with the past and very current. Her voice and perspective shine, carrying a singular sort of deep melancholy. This is sad, beautiful music that captures the points of view of people carrying weighty burdens and trying to find home. - Dave Heaton



9. Sunny Sweeney – Trophy (Aunt Daddy)

Sunny Sweeney is on her fourth album; each one has felt like it didn't get the attention it deserved. She's a careful singer and has a capacity for combining humor and likability with old-fashioned portrayal of deep sadness. Beginning in a bar and ending at a cemetery, Trophy projects deep sorrow more thoroughly than her past releases, as good as they were. In between, there are pills, bad ideas, heartbreak, and a clever, true-tearjerker ballad voicing a woman's longing to have children. -- Dave Heaton



8. Kip Moore – Slowheart (MCA Nashville)

The bro-country label never sat easy with Kip Moore. The man who gave us "Somethin' 'Bout a Truck" has spent the last few years trying to distance himself from the beer and tailgate crowd. Mission accomplished on the outstanding Slowheart, an album stuffed with perfectly produced hooks packaged in smoldering, synthy Risky Business guitars and a rugged vocal rasp that sheds most of the drawl from his delivery. Moore sounds determined to help redefine contemporary country music with hard nods toward both classic rock history and contemporary pop flavors. With its swirling guitar textures, meticulously catchy songcraft, and Moore's career-best performances (see the spare album-closing "Guitar Man"), Slowheart raises the bar for every would-be bro out there. -- Steve Leftridge



7. Chris Stapleton – From a Room: Volume 1 (Mercury Nashville)

If Chris Stapleton didn't really exist, we would have to invent him—a burly country singer with hair down to his nipples and a chainsaw of a soul-slinging voice who writes terrific throwback outlaw-indebted country songs and who wholesale rejects modern country trends. Stapleton's recent rise to festival headliner status is one of the biggest country music surprises in recent years, but his fans were relieved this year that his success didn't find him straying from his traditional wheelhouse. The first installment of From a Room once again finds Stapleton singing the hell out of his sturdy original songs. A Willie Nelson cover is not unwelcome either, as he unearths a semi-obscure one. The rest is made up of first-rate tales of commonality: Whether he's singing about hard-hurtin' breakups or resorting to smoking them stems, we've all been there. -- Steve Leftridge



6. Carly Pearce – Every Little Thing (Big Machine)

Many of the exciting young emerging artists in country music these days are women, yet the industry on the whole is still unwelcoming and unforgiving towards them. Look at who's getting the most radio play, for one. Carly Pearce had a radio hit with "Every Little Thing", a heartbreaking ballad about moments in time that in its pace itself tries to stop time. Every Little Thing the album is the sort of debut that deserves full attention. From start to finish it's a thoroughly riveting, rewarding work by a singer with presence and personality. There's a lot of humor, lust, blues, betrayal, beauty and sentimentality, in proper proportions. One of the best songs is a call for a lover to make her "feel something", even if it's anger or hatred. Indeed, the album doesn't shy away from a variety of emotions. Even when she treads into common tropes of mainstream country love songs, there's room for revelations and surprises. – Dave Heaton

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Scholar Judith May Fathallah's work blurs lines between author and ethnographer, fan experiences and genre TV storytelling.

In Fanfiction and the Author: How Fanfic Changes Popular Culture Texts, author Judith May Fathallah investigates the progressive intersections between popular culture and fan studies, expanding scholarly discourse concerning how contemporary blurred lines between texts and audiences result in evolving mediated practices.

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8

Which is the draw, the art or the artist? Critic Rachel Corbett examines the intertwined lives of two artists of two different generations and nationalities who worked in two starkly different media.

Artist biographies written for a popular audience necessarily involve compromise. On the one hand, we are only interested in the lives of artists because we are intrigued, engaged, and moved by their work. The confrontation with a work of art is an uncanny experience. We are drawn to, enraptured and entranced by, absorbed in the contemplation of an object. Even the performative arts (music, theater, dance) have an objective quality to them. In watching a play, we are not simply watching people do things; we are attending to the play as a thing that is more than the collection of actions performed. The play seems to have an existence beyond the human endeavor that instantiates it. It is simultaneously more and less than human: more because it's superordinate to human action and less because it's a mere object, lacking the evident subjectivity we prize in the human being.

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