Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows review

Jude Law and Robert Downey Jr.
The game is afoot -- again!

On Friday, 16 December 2011, I picked up the registration for my new car and got it inspected. I also handed over the title to my old automobile. The next day, Janice and I met role-players Sara F. & Josh C. for lunch at Whole Foods at Legacy Place in Dedham, Massachusetts.

We then went to the Showcase Cinemas de Luxe to screen Sherlock Holmes [2]: A Game of Shadows with Sara & Josh’s friend “Viking.” We enjoyed the steampunk movie, which had even more action than its 2009 predecessor and was somewhat faithful to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle‘s detective stories.

Director Guy Ritchie is still fond of explosions, Gypsy music, and slow-motion fisticuffs. Actors Robert Downey Jr. as Holmes and Jude Law as Dr. John Watson appear to be having a blast playing up their “bromance.” Downey Jr.’s comedic chameleon owes at least as much to Peter Sellers‘ manic Inspector Clouseau in the Pink Panther flicks as it does Basil Rathbone or Jeremy Brett’s sleuths.

Jared Harris, the son of the late Richard Harris and already a villain on Fringe, acquits himself well as that “veritable Napoleon of crime,” Dr. James Moriarty. As with the original serialized fiction, women are merely in supporting roles in Sherlock Holmes 2. Mrs. Mary Watson (Kelly Reilly), Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams), and fortuneteller Madame Simza Heron (Noomi Rapace) are involved in Moriarty and Holmes’ chess game as attractive pawns.

Noted Sherlockian Stephen Fry does get an amusing turn as Holmes’ older (and smarter) brother Mycroft. In A Game of Shadows, Sherlock Holmes, Watson, and Mme. Simza race across Europe to investigate anarchist bombings and a profiteering scheme to plunge the continent into war. This plot is surprisingly faithful to “The Bruce-Partington Plans,” “The Final Problem,” and the historical facts of how the Victorian era eventually led to World War I or the so-called Great War.

I’m not sure that Conan Doyle would recognize his world in this latest cinematic adaptation, however, with its steampunky emphasis on grime, crime, and pyrotechnics over erudite detection. Still, it’s worth remembering that the late 19th century was an era of technological change to match our own, with electrical street lights, the horseless carriage, telegraphs, and machine guns all changing daily life.

Fans and practitioners of the steampunk subculture will no doubt find inspiration in A Game of Shadows, which includes swordplay, waltzes, and fights aboard a rushing train. Both Tim M.B.‘s GURPS “Arth” and my GURPS/D20 “Gaslight Grimoire” scenarios used similar elements, as do recent role-playing games such as Airship Pirates and the FATE 3e Kerberos Club.

More serious Holmesians (Janice and I have been to 221b Baker Street) may prefer the upcoming second series/season of the BBC/PBS Sherlock, coming soon. Despite its modern setting, I’ve also enjoyed the latter adaptation. Like other enduring British icons, such as King Arthur, Robin Hood, James Bond, and Doctor Who, the great detective can be interpreted in many ways.

Overall, I’d give Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, which is rated PG-13 for violence and innuendo, a B+, three out of five stars, or 7.5 out of 10. The movie is good popcorn entertainment, and another sequel is reportedly in the works, even though its box-office performance could have been better.

We also saw promising trailers for the actioner Haywire and Christopher Nolan’s Batman finale The Dark Knight Rises, but even the previews for Marvel’s Avengers, sword-and-sandals sequel Wrath of the Titans, and Disney/Pixar’s animated fantasy Brave didn’t excite me the way those for Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit [1]: An Unexpected Journey have. I look forward to returning to Middle Earth, and genre film fans have a lot to look forward to in the coming year!

Playing catch-up

Person of Interest
Conspiracy drama

Although Janice’s and my Verizon FIOS wasn’t restored until Thursday, 3 November 2011, I hardly missed land-line telephone, cable television, or Internet service after the early winter storm last week. A decent number of trick-or-treaters came to our door on Halloween, and I’ve caught up a bit on reading, free of fund-raiser calls.

Of the TV shows I missed, I should be able to see Masterpiece: Mystery and Homeland in reruns, and I can afford to miss episodes of Castle and Psych because they don’t rely too heavily on story arcs. I’ve already dropped Terra Nova and American Horror Story. Fairy-tale dramas Grimm and Once Upon a Time are just getting started. I prefer the quirky sense of humor of the former over the romantic visuals of the latter. I also enjoyed the latest low-key Person of Interest.

Now, if I had missed “sci-Friday,” I’d have a lot more to catch up on: Batman and the Brave and the Bold, Young Justice, ThunderCats, Star Wars: Clone Wars, and X-Men for animation. In addition to them and Grimm, there’s also Chuck, Fringe, and Sanctuary (and eventually Spartacus: Vengeance). Of these, my favorites right now are Clone Wars, ThunderCats, and Fringe.

Coming soon: Food, once and future co-workers, games, and reading…

Autumn 2011 genre TV, Part 2

Thrillers and superspies
RPG sourcebook related to midweek genre TV

Continuing my look at the new television season, on Tuesdays, Janice and I have been watching Top Shot on the History Channel. We like the use of a range of archaic weapons, if not the cutthroat competitiveness of some participants.

In addition to catching up on genre shows recorded on Sundays and Mondays, I look forward to the eventual return of the sleuths on White Collar and Memphis Beat. Janice is taking a yoga class this fall.

I haven’t added comedies such as The New Girl or Two Broke Girls to my viewing schedule, but I liked what little I saw of them more than the Mad Men-inspired Pan Am or even the already canceled The Playboy Club.

On Wednesdays, most of the shows I’ve watched in the past few seasons are not returning: Reaper, Eastwick, and Human Target, to name a few. I still occasionally watch food TV such as Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives and Man vs. Food NationBitchin’ Kitchen is my current favorite.

The goofy sleuths on Psych return tonight. If you liked David Lynch’s surrealistic Twin Peaks (whose cast had a reunion on Psych) or the psychosexual horror of some of True Blood, you’ll probably like FX’s American Horror Story. It’s a bit dark for my tastes, but it’s better than most of the schlocky “reality” programming on SyFy or the History Channel.

On Thursdays, I’ve dropped spy show Nikita, which of course then got renewed. Also last season, I watched Undercovers, which got canceled, but not Covert Affairs, which also got renewed. I wasn’t impressed by the latest version of Charlie’s Angels, whose actresses are less jiggly, glamorous, or interesting than their predecessors and who are hampered by weak scripts.

I have picked up Person of Interest, created by Jonathan Nolan, brother of The Dark Knight director Chris Nolan. Like that movie, it explores the implications of ubiquitous surveillance, and it’s a paranoid post-9/11 technothriller similar to the aforementioned Homeland. The distrustful team of a computer genius and a former commando inserting themselves into the lives of people who need help reminds me of The Prisoner, The Pretender, and Human Target.

I’ll save Friday, which is the most crowded night of the week for genre TV fans, for an upcoming post. What are you watching?

Autumn 2011 genre TV, Part 1

Campfire by Matt Rhodes
Campfire tales

Now that we’re a few weeks into the new television season, here’s my look at the latest crop of genre programs. As a disclaimer, note that I tend to watch science fiction, fantasy, superheroes, and suspense over mainstream dramas, reality shows, and situation comedies. That’s not to say that I don’t like humor, romance, or competitions, but I prefer them in smaller doses compared with speculative fiction.

Many of my friends have stopped watching multiple series as they’re broadcast, instead preferring to watch a full season at a time via Netflix. For now, I still like variety and timeliness more than delving in depth into one show at a time, but I do think that video on demand will become more prevalent. I hope that niche shows like the ones I enjoy will continue to be made, even if genre TV shows already have a high cancellation rate.

This year, I’ll group shows by night of the week rather than subgenre. As always, I welcome your reactions and recommendations!

On Sunday nights, I’ve been running my “Vanished Lands” fantasy campaign, using Pathfinder, Skype, and an online dice roller. The eight role-players across the U.S. have had difficulty achieving quorum lately, but I hope that our gaming group will eventually get back to a regular schedule.

This past summer, I enjoyed the do-gooder capers on TNT’s Leverage and the British sleuths on Masterpiece: Mystery, and I look forward to the eventual return of Sherlock on PBS/BBC America. While many of my peers will be watching football or Fox’s animated comedies, I’ll probably record ABC’s Once Upon a Time, which is part of a wave of modern supernatural shows inspired by fairy tales.

Showtime’s Homeland is a strong Manchurian Candidate-style thriller with a strong cast, including Damian Lewis, Claire Danes, Mandy Patinkin, and Morena Baccarin. I’m not sure I’ll continue watching Homeland, but it does a good job of keeping viewers guessing whether Lewis’ returning prisoner of war has been turned traitor or if Danes’ intelligence analyst is merely paranoid.

On Mondays, I’m hosting and running the “Vortex” homebrew space opera, using FATE 3e Starblazer Adventures and Bulldogs (as well as any science fiction RPG I can borrow ideas from). Two teams of about six role-players each meet for our face-to-face sessions on alternating weeks, not including dates we’ve had to skip for holidays or travel.

SyFy’s Alphas has managed to succeed where Heroes, The Cape, and No Ordinary Family stumbled — showing a dysfunctional family of metahuman vigilantes in a semi-realistic setting. It has more in common with the better X-Men adaptations than with the more campy The Cape or even Smallville. Although Alphas is low-budget and low-key, I look forward to its return next year.

Speaking of SyFy, Warehouse 13 (which is apparently in the same universe as Eureka and Alphas, thanks to Lindsay Wagner’s crossovers) was still fun, even as it spent more time exploring characters and intrigue than MacGuffins.

Other genre veterans can be found on Castle, which mixes police procedural, fanboy homages and parodies, and the occasional romance. Firefly/Serenity‘s Nathan Fillion and The Spirit‘s Stana Katic solve often bizarre crimes in New York City.

J.J. Abrams and Steven Spielberg got a lot of attention for Terra Nova, their postapocalyptic family drama with computer-generated dinosaurs. However, I found the first few episodes to be predictable and contrived, owing as much to Earth 2 as to James Cameron’s Avatar. I’d prefer less focus on annoying teenagers and random encounters with dinosaurs and more gradual buildup of time-travel mysteries and the larger world.

Coming soon: Tuesdays on the telly and more travel!

Fantasy and mystery TV, summer 2011

Mysterious wallpaper

I hope that those of you in the U.S. had a good Independence Day weekend. Among other things, Janice and I attended the holiday and 300th anniversary celebrations in Needham, Massachusetts, including the fireworks display, parade, and fair. Fortunately, we managed to avoid the thundershowers that had been forecast.

Just over a week ago, Janice and I caught up on some recorded videos, including Sorcerer’s Apprentice, Macbeth, and some animation (which I’ll review later). Each was good in its own way.

Disney’s Sorcerer’s Apprentice, starring Nicholas Cage and Alfred Molina, is loosely based on the classic animated short in Fantasia. While not quite as gonzo as National Treasure or as franchise-igniting as Pirates of the Caribbean, this movie is decent young-adult fantasy entertainment in the style of Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief, with a dash of modern wizards Harry Potter and Harry Dresden.

Jay Baruchel is appropriately nerdy as a physicist who stumbles into a long duel between Cage and Molina’s spellcasters. They are former students of Merlin alienated over the affections of a third student, played by the attractive Monica Bellucci. Star Trek: First Contact‘s Borg queen, Alice Krige, is Morgana le Fay, and Teresa Palmer, who was almost Talia al-Ghul in George Miller’s aborted Justice League: Mortal, plays Beruchel’s love interest.

The plot and script are predictable, but some of the visual effects are clever, and Cage gets to be his droll self as seen in other genre flicks such as Ghost Rider. I’d give Sorcerer’s Apprentice, which is rated PG for violence, a B-, two out of five stars, or a 7 out of 10. It’s fine as a rental or to catch on cable television as we did.

A bit more highbrow was the three-hour production of Macbeth, or “the Scottish play,” starring Star Trek: the Next Generation and X-Men‘s Patrick Stewart as the ambitious murderer and king. This adaptation, whose modern setting resembles Russia in the 1920s and 1930s, first ran on stage before being filmed for the PBS.

Kate Fleetwood plays an equally ruthless (and guilt-ridden) Lady Macbeth, who is younger than the onetime military officer but a good match for him to the bloody end. The soliloquies are muted but no less effective, and the script closely follows Shakespeare’s. I thought the weird sisters were nicely disturbing, in an alternative music plus Doctor Who sort of way, although their enunciation was a bit muddled.

I’d give this version of Macbeth an A-, 8.5 out of 10, or four out of five stars. There was a brief interview with Stewart after the broadcast of the play, giving some insights into the directorial and acting choices for this interpretation. I can easily imagine it being required viewing in high schools.

Janice and I have also been enjoying PBS’s Masterpiece Mystery, including the latest adaptations of Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot stories. The Belgian detective is still faithfully depicted by David Suchet, and the latest batch of episodes has refrained from making too many changes to the original mysteries. We’re also looking forward to more Miss Marple, Inspector Lewis, and newcomer Aurelio Zen.

Elsewhere on the dial, I’m glad for the summer returns of the buddy crime solvers on USA’s White Collar, TNT’s bluesy Memphis Beat, and the capers of TNT’s Leverage. I just learned that Hu$tle, a British show about do-gooder grifters, had four more seasons/series than what I had seen on U.S. TV.

Going back to fantasy, I’m disappointed that Starz canceled Camelot, which suffered in comparison with the more popular Spartacus and HBO’s Game of Thrones. I liked Camelot more than the recent takes on Robin Hood or the later Merlin series. We’ll see whether the planned shows about Vikings and pirates are any good and continue the latest revival of swashbuckling bodice-rippers on TV (such as Showtime’s Borgias).