MCN Columnists
Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on DVDs. Sherlock Holmes: AGOS; Journey 2; Ghost Rider: SOV




U.K.-U.S.: Guy Ritchie, 2011 (Warner Home Video)


There’s a level of sheer frantic busy-ness and glib chaos in director Guy Ritchie’s and star Robert Downey, Jr. second Sherlock Holmes movie — Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows –that makes it, by turns, easy to enjoy and hard to stomach. This rock-‘em-shock-’em-and-Sherlock-’em Victorian slam-banger from the irrepressible Ritchie (the director of Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels) is one of those movies that keeps blowing up in your face every ten minutes or so.

The first Downey-Ritchie-Holmes bash, the 2009 Sherlock Holmes,  replaced the mystery, romance and brilliant deduction of Arthur Conan Doyle‘s original stories (60 of them, including four novels), with martial arts, camp, crazy visuals and a nusto grab-bag of a story, and the sequel follows that formula, slavishly. As the screen keeps erupting into one gorgeously designed, beautifully shot, madly expensive-looking, totally daffy action orgy after another, Downey‘s slovenly Kung Fu Holmes and his stalwart if sometimes disapproving stiff-upper-sidekick Dr. John Watson (Jude Law) battle the “Napoleon of Crime“, Dr. James Moriarity (Jared Harris) — a genius and professorial fiend who is apparently trying to foment a war between Germany and Great Britain in 1891 (a quarter century before World War I). Meanwhile, Holmes demonstrates his flair for detection and his mastery of disguise — at one point, he brilliantly impersonates a chaise lounge — and tries to cope with his libidinous feelings toward Watson and his mixed sentiments about his old roommate’s approaching marriage to bride-to-be Mary (Kelly Reilly). A gypsy spy-seductress named Madame Simza Heron (played by Noomi Rapace, the star of Prometheus and the killer-hacker gal of the Swedish Girl With the Dragon Tattoo Trilogy) is also along for many of the wild rides.
 The old Holmes stories by Doyle exercised your intellect, as well as stimulating your sense of romance and adventure. These new video game adventures of Holmes and Watson, jam-packed with antic mayhem, wild anachronism, and madhouse storytelling, give a battering to your nervous system. The movie is a prodigy of production design (Sarah Greenwood) and of cinematography (Philippe Rousselot). But it also surpasses the first 2009 Ritchie- Downey-Law-Holmes movie for goofiness and craziness, fulfilling all your wildest nightmares of Hollywood excess.
     Excess? No shit, Sherlock! The movie, in a way, seems to be a nightmare itself, something Holmes may be suffering through after an accidental cocaine overdose, while Mrs. Hudson (Geraldine James) plies him with hot toddies and Watson says “There, there, old man.” And then Holmes shrieks “Watson! Watson! We’re in a huge phallic tower and I’m being imprisoned and tortured by madmen and…Yes, it’s Moriarity himself! My God, the tower is crumbling, Watson! It‘s crumbling!
     Truth to tell, I experienced a lot of queasiness and annoyance myself during Game of Shadows. It tends to wring you out. But I also enjoyed a fair measure of this movie, especially when star Downey was on screen reacting with that wry what-the-hell nonchalance of his, to all the unfathomable idiocy and mayhem erupting around him in nearly every scene. If you have a move that makes little sense, and keeps going so far over the top that it seems to be endangering the very Ozone Layer of sanity, Downey is a good man to have reacting to it all on screen. No matter what lunatic thing happens here, no matter what fresh (and stale) absurdity is hurled in our faces, Downey can always come up with engagingly jaded reaction shots and what seems to be inspired improvisatory tomfoolery. He can be the ultimate straight man to a crooked, if not always comic, world.

Here are some examples of rampaging goofiness, as cooked up in lock, stock and smoking barrels full by Ritchie and his screenwriters, Kieran and Michele Mulroney (actor Dermot’s younger brother and sister-in-law): There’s a somersaulting martial arts brouhaha with bad Cossacks in a huge, gaudy Victorian bordello during a rowdy bachelor party for Watson; a rapid-fire chess game between Holmes and Moriarity, conducted on a chilly mountain top balcony over the infamous Reichenbach Falls; a fast and furious train ride in which Watson seems in serious imminent peril of losing his virginity to Holmes in drag; the unnerving spectacle of Stephen Fry (who’s played both Oscar Wilde and Jeeves), here playing Sherlock’s apparently shameless brother Mycroft, prancing around barefoot to the elbows before an appalled Mary Watson (whom Holmes previously tossed off that speeding train, for her own good); and the simmering toothsome sight of a potful of hedgehog goulash, cooked gypsy style and served two-smoking-barrels hot to our heroes by Madame Simza Heron. (Holmes declares it the finest hedgehog goulash he’s ever tasted, which is what I mean by wry.)

Then there are the movie’s orgies of slow-motion, during chases, fights, dances, flights through the woods, what have you — everything it seems, but Watson‘s potential deflowering — a slow-mo Victorian deluge that sometimes suggests that Ritchie, visually, is trying to copy Sam Peckinpah, Richard Lester and Ken Russell  at the same time, but just past their primes.

The acting has Ritchie and his cast doing it mostly ‘70s-style tongue-in-cheek (Downey’s specialty, though you‘ll never see his tongue) — as if Monty Python had taken over Masterpiece Theater for an hour or two. One wonders how these movies bumped into the idea of Downey turning Holmes into a seedy-looking, unshaven, uncouth sleuth, with Law’s Watson as his straight-saber friend, but Downey makes it work, just as Harris gets the most of an essentially dramatic turn as the evil genius Moriarity

Downey saves a lot of it — acting and reacting flawlessly, backed by a fine cast that also includes Eddie Marsan (too briefly) as bumbling Inspector Lestrade, and Rachel McAdams (too, too briefly) as wicked Irene Adler. It’s just a sorry, sorry script. Downey is a great actor, I think, never more so than when a movie is blowing up all around him or he‘s forced to disguise himself as a sofa, or something harder. I’d hate to think though, that this was his prime, in any sense but a financial one — even if one senses that Guy Ritchie, a real Baker Street Irregular, is probably getting everything he ever wanted to get from this screenplay, and from the legendary Sherlock Holmes, and maybe more. I have to admit though: This is the finest hedgehog goulash I’ve ever tasted.


JOURNEY 2: THE MYSTERIOUS ISLAND (Also Three Disc Blu-ray/3D/DVD Combo)(Two Stars)

U.S.: Brad Peyton, 2012 (Warner Home Video)
Fans of the elaborately senseless should have a field day at Journey 2: The Mysterious Island. This movie — which is a sort of sequel to the 2008 3D hit Journey to the Center of the Earth, and is sort of based on Jules Verne’s 19th century science-fiction classic Mysterious Island — is one of the dopiest shows I’ve seen in quite a while (dopey on purpose maybe, but dopey nonetheless: an expensive-looking, visually plush but often witless concoction that bears only the most tangential connections to the previous movie, to Jules Verne, to narrative logic, to good storytelling, or to the vacation glories of Hawaii, where part of the movie was shot. Why? It’s a mystery.
This new 3D show starts with a whopper: teen adventurer Sean Anderson (Josh Hutcherson), the only refugee here from the first Journey, is arrested for breaking into a U.S. satellite-tracking station so that he could decipher the mysterious Help message sent to him (for some reason in code) by his explorer/grandfather Alexander, who has found the Mysterious Island that author Verne only pretended was a fiction, but is actually fact. (According to this movie, Treasure Island, Gulliver’s Travels and the legend of Atlantis are also non-fiction and are all parts of some pseudo-literary mish-mash of a world.)
One would think that the obnoxious Sean — who apparently learned no lasting life-lessons from previous series star/uncle Brendan Fraser at the Center of the Earth — was on his way to the slammer. But he’s rescued by his mom’s (Kristin Davis) amiably hunky new guy, Hank, played by The Artist Formerly Known as The Rock — a.k.a. Dwayne Johnson. Soon, lippy Sean and the tolerant Hank, clutching Alexander‘s mysterious instructions, are on their way to the Pacific to rescue the old boy from some dire fate on his uncharted and mysterious island, after hiring the most rickety looking helicopter around, with the most unreliable-looking pilot (Luis Guzman as Gabato).
And, by amazing happenstance, Gabato just happens to have a fetching and feisty teenaged, tank top-clad daughter named Kailani, just Sean’s type and a perfect part for Vanessa Hudgens.
Together, the strangely confident foursome fly off in Gabato’s copter, which looks like it was put together from old eggbeaters — and are immediately sucked into a hurricane that tears the unfortunate vehicle apart and tosses the quartet right onto the Mysterious Island‘s mysterious beach, where they rise up amazingly perky and ready for more mystery and adventure. Soon they bump into Alexander, played by Michael Caine, who has decided to celebrate the fifty-first anniversary of his appearance in The Day the Earth Caught Fire by making an utter fool of himself, while earning an ungodly amount of money. (As if to clue us in, Caine plays much of the movie with a sneaky smile.) And they are all merrily on their way to Alexander’s “Swiss Family Robinson” style tree-house, stopping on the way to engage in comical bickering, to slide over some giant lizards eggs, flee the Mama Lizard, ogle the island’s weird flora and weirder fauna (which includes midget pettable elephants and giant rideable bees), and try to help cast-mate Guzman break the Guinness world record for nonstop mugging.
But, alack, more trouble is aboil. At Alexander’s, after examining maps and using his mysterious home-made radio or maybe just cogitating, our happy wanderers learn that the volcanic island is due to blow up and sink into the ocean the next day — no, make that today, in a few hours. And their only means of escape, is to somehow locate Captain Nemo’s more than century-old submarine The Nautilus, somehow get it running, and set sail for Oahu or thereabouts, with Guzman still mugging away. How did this happen? It’s a mystery.


A formidable task, but our heroes and heroine are up to it. (Did you ever doubt?) Along the way to the credits, The Artist Formerly Known as the Rock treats us to a genial performance of the Louis Armstrong favorite “What a Wonderful World,” with his own ukulele accompaniment; advises Sean on his love life, smiles constantly, and tops it all off by bouncing berries off his popping pectorals, making for an unprecedented 3D experience.

But, unfortunately,  more mysterious problems pop up (like the pectorals). Gabato wanders off at almost the last minute before doomsday to prospect for the Island’s gold in order to pay for his daughter’s college education. And Hank and Sean put on an amazing breath-control act when they find the Nautilus. As Roger Ebert notes, perhaps in awe: with that one breath, they dive underwater, find the ship, unscrew the hatch, swim aboard (still underwater), find the controls, fix them, start up the air, start up the engine and do three choruses of “My Baby Does the Hanky Panky,” while dancing The Swim. (No, just kidding — at least about “Hanky Panky” and The Swim.) Soon they are all safely sailing off for more mysterious adventure, rejoined by Hudgens in another tank top, by Caine, still sneakily smiling, and by Guzman, who gives up prospecting, and resumes his pursuit of the world mugging record. Go Luis! Can he make it before another island mysteriously blows up?  It’s a mystery.


By now, some of you may believe that this review is only an elaborate joke and that no such fiasco was ever committed to celluloid. You’re wrong. It was. (Or something very like it.) Screenwriter-cousins  Mark and Brian Gunn (Bring It On Again) really wrote this script. The actors, a talented and tolerant bunch, really said these lines — and without breaking up into helpless laughter. (Unless there’s a blooper reel.) Brad Peyton, of Cats & Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore, really directed it. The technicians and effects guys really made bees you can ride on.

And huge audiences swarmed into theaters to see this Godawful silly but not unentertaining movie — and, I hope, to cheer on the champ, Luis Guzman. Huge DVD audiences are no doubt already queueing up. What would Jules Verne have made of it all?  Will these guys ever get their hands on “Treasure Island?” Is this the kind of thing we can expect from the big Hollywood studio movies of tomorrow? It’s, um, mysterious. 

GHOST RIDER (One and a Half Stars)

U.S.; Neveldine/Taylor (Mark Neveldine & Brian Taylor), 2012

No critics’ screenings here on Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance — for reasons that become quickly apparent when you watch it. So I decided to fork over coin of the realm anyway and catch it at a multiplex. After all, I thought, how bad could it be? I mean really, seriously: How bad? With Nicolas Cage as the star, again,  this sequel to his 2007 action hit Ghost Rider, should at least boast a few amusing tantrums and memorable creep-outs. And the source material seemed vaguely promising: a Marvel comic, with Marvelmeister Stan Lee himself one of a large gang of producers and executive producers, all producing away. I hadn’t seen the first Ghost Rider, with Nic, in 2007, so I walked in without much predisposition, except for the fact that movies the studios won’t screen ahead of time are usually not worth screening — or seeing — or talking about, or even thinking about. But not always. I thought what the hell, live dangerously.

The lights dim. The movie starts. The entertainment supposedly commences. We begin presto agitato, with a very, very fast and rapidly cut action scene at an abbey somewhere in Eastern Europe. A rebel biker monk named Moreau (played by Idris Elba, who deserves better) tries to keep Satan’s illegitimate son, young Danny (played by young Feargus O’Brien, who also deserves better) and his pretty, black jacketed mom Nadya (played by Violante Placido, of The American, who deserves better too) out of the smoking hands of the devil himself, a Mephistophelean chap called Roark (played by estimable Irishman Ciarán Hinds, who, of course, deserves much better). Hinds has replaced the devil of the first movie, who was played by Peter Fonda (who vamoosed), and Lucifer’s main minion in this movie is Ray  Carrigan, played by Johnny Whitworth, who turns supernatural midway through. Whitworth also deserves better. Hell, they all deserve better, including the Devil.

Anyway, monks are bashed and hell is raised and a car-chopper chase ensues, with Moreau on his monk-cycle. For want of anything better to do, I began counting the length of the cuts in the first scene (one thousand, two thousand…). They were mostly a second or less. Pretty damn fast. Rule of Thumb: Most movies cannot survive too many action scenes composed of nothing but one second cuts, however ballsy or Wildbunchian it may make the editors feel.

Soon Cage shows up. Big entrance.  In the last movie, or so I hear, this poor sucker Johnny Blaze that Nic is playing, sold his soul to the devil to save his father’s life, and he got cheated and turned into Ghost Rider, condemned to wander forever between the winds and the sequels. But Moreau, who rather mysteriously has green eyes, tells Johnny that he can have his soul back if he rescues Danny from Roark. (Does this flaming sap believe anything you tell him?)

Maybe that’s why Cage wanted to do this character again. He’s really doing two parts here: ex-stunt-motorcyclist Johnny Blaze, who’s our familiar, sneering, sad-eyed, tantrum-tossing Nic, and Ghost Rider, who is largely a special effect and has a head that turns into a skull that bursts into flames (but rarely ever singes his collar). This Ghost Rider visual effect also blows up bad guys, sucks out their spirits or essences and shoots and pisses streams of fire. (Hey, who needs a soul?) Then he turns back into Johnny Blaze and gets to throw bizarre Nic Cage fits.

I figure Cage has worked out a cushy deal where he gets to emote and ride the chopper a little, and the special effect flaming skull dude does all the heavy lifting and heavy-duty action. But no — maybe. Cage is listed for both parts and some sources say he’s playing them both — which I hope doesn’t mean that this dedicated actor, who was said to have pulled some teeth for his part in Birdy (Cage says they had to go anyway), has pulled a “Jackie Chan” here, and is now doing his own stunts, somersaulting off speeding trucks onto burning motorcycles.

Anyway, after a while, it becomes obvious that this movie is a real stinkeroo — despite Cage, despite Elba,, despite Hinds, despite the effects guys who did Johnny’s flaming skull, despite Stan Lee, despite Violante Placido, despite everything. Nor is the film  helped much by pulling in more monks, chanting away, and scheduling later appearances by Polish actor Jacek Koman as the villainous Terroski, and Christopher Lambert as the tattooed, sullen religious advisor Methodius (a part perhaps conceived for the late Marlon Brando) — all of whom deserve better, Brando included.

Directors  Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor (Crank), a moviemaking team who sign themselves synergistically with the joint moniker Neveldine/Taylor, are so seemingly addicted to their one-second-shot-or-more cutting exercises — even in the dialogue scenes, the co-directors and editor Brian Bernan hardly ever seemed to stretch a shot beyond four seconds — that the movie becomes semi-chaotic and tends to give you a headache. (Or maybe I was just empathizing with Cage whenever his head ignited.)

That’s too bad, because Taylor/Neveldine, or Neveldine/Taylor or whoever they are, actually have an arresting, or at least interesting, visual style that’s heavy on all kinds of odd angles, including birds-eye peer-downs and shoe-level tip-ups. The script however, seems to have been thrown together by three writers who would probably prefer to remain anonymous, except at the bank, and is a total stinkeroo-guarantee — a series of chases and pyrotechnic gibberish and flame-outs and showdowns, interspersed every once in a while with dopey or expository or would-be humorous conversations, encapsulated in those hectic two to four second bursts, or with shots of Johnny Blaze. a.k.a. Ghost Rider zooming around and periodically bursting into flame, like a relentless shish kebab.

I am happy to say though that this obnoxiously clichéd, pointless, nonsensical and headache-inducing movie — out of which I eventually staggered, dumbstruck — does teach a valuable life lesson. Namely: Never sell your soul to the devil, especially in Romania. I personally have always found this to be good advice (even though I’ve never been in Romania), and I’d like to pass it along, with all due admiration and concern, to that great bizarre movie actor, one time collector of vintage chronometers, and champion fit-thrower Nicolas (Vampire’s Kiss) Cage — who deserves better.

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon