I am, among many other things, indebted to the friend who broadened my appreciation of literature by exposing me to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's work. They are quite wondrous works, not quite mystery but not quite outside; you never had a clear sense of whether or when there was a puzzle that you had been given enough information to solve, but if you read slowly and deliberately enough you'd often find yourself asking the right questions about the situations and sometimes divining the right answers before Inspector Lestrade. So I was skeptical about the notion that they were going to take creative liberties with the franchise in the movie.

Let me start with the elephant in the room. As maybe would surprise few, I despise retconning "bromance". When I was young, it was difficult for a man and a woman to have a deep platonic relationship without people wondering about the unseemly secrets that they must be hiding. Now, in the enlightened future, we have broadened our mind to be so suspicious of all friendships. It is wearying. Doyle's Holmes was certainly an egomaniac who was desirous of an educated and curious chronicler, but the overloading of co-dependency shown in the movie was horrific and embarrassing. Furthermore, I don't think it brought anything to the story.

Beyond that, though, the story was rich and detailed, even when it was portraying the poverty and filth of nineteenth-century London. The story was quite involved and neither too difficult to follow nor too simple to predict. They took some liberties with Holmes' acquaintances and skill set, but all in all it was a good ride. I give it eight thumbs up.
Having a nine year-old nephew and a four year-old niece, I am exposed to "family movies" from time to time. And, as a rule, anything outside Pixar and the formal Disney animated features are all stunningly mediocre at best. You get the biggest sitcom star of the day to play "himself" along with a large assortment of B-list stars with a plot dealing with an immature dysfunctional person dealing with adult issues, throw in a large dose of sass and scatological humor, and then paste some beautiful but soulless computer-generated animation on top of it. They must be easy to make and inexpensive, because my niblets seem to be wading through the muck of a different one every week. Where are the masters of our age who have the clarity that WE are the adults and our duty is to give children what they need and not what they want and our challenge is to do that in an accessible way?

And yet, I have found something that disappointed me more. Even worse than dreadful pablum is a movie that clearly recognizes excellence but then buries it under a mountain of the same old crap. I suspect that you can edit Kung Fu Panda into the most amazing twenty minute film in history, but unfortunately the actual movie is 92 minutes long.

So Jack Black plays a fat, clumsy, fat, rudderless panda who dreams of being a kung fu master and, through a series of improbable misadventures, becomes the destined savior of China but still doesn't know the first thing about kung fu. Did I mention that he's fat? Because, hee hee hee, it's funny how fat people can't do anything and are fat. He lands in a dojo where his trainer hates him and the other students resent him but the old old master is a patient counselor dispensing critical wisdom at crucial moments, and you start fidgeting and wondering which of the hundred movies that did this better was actually the best.

But then the movie deviates from its set form and twitches its pinky finger, and all of a sudden there is some inspiration. It's not only about the oaf, it's about the dynamics of the dojo before the oaf came along. And that was fresh and interesting. It took some time to tell that story, but they took that time, and then the teacher and the head student and even the villain became actual people. You are sympathetic to why they hate the fat stupid useless panda

And then, just as suddenly, the focus goes back to the fat stupid useless panda and we're back on the slow train to Genreville. You've got winning over most of the students, the uneasy alliance with the teacher, the training montage, the student facing the teacher as an equal, the resignation, the moralistic insight that leads to the transfiguration, the climactic battle, check check check check check check check. It doesn't retract the good parts that came before, but it doesn't have the courage to stop telling the story that it has nothing to contribute to. And that's what is so maddening about Kung Fu Panda. I'll probably be a month trying to figure out how they could have made it a great movie instead of a tired one with a few breakout performances, but it will still be too late to save it.

As a side note, a lot of CGI movies seem to think that they can out-cool the Neo-Morpheus fight because they aren't bound by the limitations of physical actors, but their copies always fall short for exactly that reason.
So I was pretty much dedicated to not watching the Watchmen, what with being an immense fan of Alan Moore's most outstanding graphic novel and not hearing anything positive about the interpretation of director Zack Snyder and main scriptwriter Alex Hayter. But, in a cruel twist of fate, it was how my brother chose to have me commemorate a landmark birthday and I couldn't see any noble way of dropping him off at the theater alone with a gift card. So, into the breach.

Pretty much spoiler-free, but cut all the same )

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Matthew Daly

December 2012

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