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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
December 29, 2011

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.


Sherlock 2, Suspect X

Sequels are usually kind of awful. Either the filmmakers are essentially remaking the first movie, hoping that by varying as little as possible from the formula they can cash in a second time, or they're trying to top the first movie by bumping up whatever they think of as its best selling point to another level.

Of course, usually it isn't a bump up at all, but rather a bump down. I think of The Hangover Part II, which showed even more excessively and unbelievably gross drunken behavior by its even-less-likeable-than-before cast.

Or Bridesmaids, which is also a sequel to every grossout comedy made since There's Something About Mary, only with women.

With Iron Man, apparently some bonehead executives decided that it was the hardware and the battles that made it work, and so Iron Man 2 consisted of nothing but hardware and battles.

They were wrong -- what made Iron Man work was smart writing, believable motivations, and Robert Downey, Jr. But even Robert Downey, Jr. can't raise a good crop in a swamp.

The trouble is, it takes time for word to spread that a sequel stinks, and so the sequel often makes even more money than the original.

Why? The original has built up its audience through DVD sales and rentals, so that the audience looking forward to seeing it is larger than the audience that originally came to the theater.

So they come to see it. Once. And they enjoy it well enough (after all, it reminds them of the original, which they really did enjoy) that they don't pan it to their friends, so their friends also go.

The third sequel usually sinks like a rock. You don't often get Toy Story 3 (and you don't often have an 11-year gap between films 2 and 3, not if you intend to use the same cast. It's one of the glories of animation.)

Then along comes Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, sequel to the 2009 Robert Downey, Jr., hit. Same director, Guy Ritchie. But a new team of writers, Michele and Kieran Mulroney.

And it's better than the original. By a lot.

The first movie was fine -- lots of money was poured into it, Robert Downey, Jr., and Jude Law made a great team, and there were some really smart story-telling elements, like the advance planning of a fight sequence, with a voiceover, which is then carried out in fast motion, so we can see how Holmes's brilliant mind gives him an advantage over physically stronger opponents.

But the first movie was also deeply dumb, in that, like Young Sherlock Holmes and Peggy Sue Got Married, it built the entire plot around a bunch of mystical claptrap with a mysterious secret society.

When Arthur Conan Doyle was writing the original Sherlock Holmes stories, "secret societies" were all the rage. After all, anarchists were terrifying Europe with terrorist attacks, and the evil forgery "The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion" was widely believed as a justification for insane anti-semitism (as it is today).

In the real world, however, secret societies are always betrayed, one way or another -- even those with the deepest religious motivations -- and they are not likely to be overcome by one really smart amateur detective.

So I found the first movie deeply unsatisfying -- a smartly made movie with a dumb story.

But Mulroney & Mulroney fashioned a tale that dispensed with mystical secret societies and instead stuck with Professor Moriarty as the source of all evil. they gave him a perfectly comprehensible motivation -- corner the weapons market and then start a war -- and dispensed with the "secret society" nonsense completely.

Unlike the Bond movies, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows did not exaggerate the evil villain to the point of unbelievability. Nor was he as stupid as fictional evil geniuses usually are. Jared Harris plays him very well -- by underacting the role, so that his confrontations with Holmes are understated, deft, and thus far more dangerous and exciting.

It also helps that in this movie, Watson (Jude Law) is a very bright fellow -- as is his wife, Mary Watson -- so that Holmes is not utterly alone and not all his plans work out without the intelligence and resourcefulness of others.

Noomi Rapace is also compelling as Madam Simza Heron, and Holmes's foray into the world of the gypsies is magical and (again) understated.

The result was a story that zips along, never flagging, yet never becoming overwrought or unclear, either. The sound recording was perfect -- not a line of dialogue is inaudible -- and when Downey claimed, in an interview with Jimmy Kimmel, that his accent was perfect, he was right.

Accents -- Americans always seem to blow them over the vowels. Somehow English actors can learn to hear and produce American vowels, but American actors only rarely learn to hear British ones.

Downey is one of the rare ones; he never seems to be thinking of his accent, it simply comes out that way. Which is how accents really work -- you set your mouth right, and you produce the vowels the way they must be produced with your jaw and lips and tongue in those positions. The accent just flows.

This lush production could so easily have been a mess -- it had all the makings of a disaster. Too much budget, which could have been wasted. Too many locations, which could have turned it into a miserable travelogue. A director with greatly enhanced power, which usually leads to ridiculous self-indulgence.

Instead, Ritchie created a tighter, leaner movie than he had to, and the Mulroneys gave him a better script than the original. Everything that actually worked in the first movie was still here, and all the things that didn't work were gone, and cool new stuff made this one even smarter and more exciting and, yes, funnier when that was called for.

Even Robert Downey, Jr., couldn't save Iron Man 2. But when you give him great material, nobody does it better, and so was worth making a Sherlock Holmes sequel. Frankly, I'd say you can skip the first movie and go straight to the second. It is wholly self-contained and vastly entertaining.

*

Last year saw good new installments in many fine mystery series, but the best mystery novel I read was a standalone translation of a Japanese novel, The Devotion of Suspect X.

In Alexander O. Smith's clear and compelling translation of Keigo Higashino's Japanese original, we get a puzzle mystery that manages never to become a "cozy," which is where the Agatha Christie tradition has evolved in England and America.

Perhaps because Higashino's sleuth is not a series character (yet), the novel focuses tightly on the mastermind of a conspiracy to cover up a crime.

Ishigami, a mathematical genius who, through the vicissitudes of academic life has become a mere high school teacher, has fallen in love with the divorced mother-of-one who lives next door, and when she commits a killing in self-defense, he takes over the crime scene and arranges a brilliant deception that completely fools the police.

Except that the police detective has a friend, a physicist of Sherlock Holmesian perceptivity, named Yukawa. A former schoolmate of Ishigami, Yukawa realizes that the police are out of their league; but Yukawa, who understands something of how Ishigami's mind works, is able to see through the deceptions and find a way to bring about justice of a kind.

Usually "genius" detectives aren't all that bright, since it's hard for writers to create characters who are smarter than they are. Most writers resort to telling the reader that a detective is really smart, without giving him anything like superior intelligence.

Not so with The Devotion of Suspect X. It is smart at every level. Each revelation is smarter than the illusion it tears aside. And the conclusion, which depends on understanding of human character rather than logic or science, is both satisfying and frustrating.

Satisfying, because it is utterly just and true to character; frustrating, because quite against our own moral sense we find ourselves rooting for the bad guy -- because we understand him so well he doesn't seem all that bad.

I didn't read this book -- I listened to it. And here's why most American readers would be better off doing the same. Japanese names are quite confusing to American readers; they don't "make sense." So most readers use the first-letter strategy to tell people apart.

In the book, this is a problem because Yasuko and Yukawa look too similar -- and both are very important viewpoint characters.

But when the novel is read to you by the excellent narrator David Pittu, the names are very different, because now it's the first vowel that dominates, and the names are distinct.

I know that's an odd reason to prefer the audiobook, but it's true all the same.

But even if you don't listen to Pittu's reading, the novel is a wonderful read in the best tradition of mystery writing. You'll sort it out either way, and the Japanese setting and culture, though different from ours, is no harder to understand than the British settings that are so common in the mystery tradition.

So use that Amazon or Audible.com or Barnes & Noble gift certificate you got for Christmas to buy The Devotion of Suspect X. It's a slim book; you'll finish it soon enough.

You'll also wish it were longer. But isn't that how you'd rather feel about a book, than to wish it had been shorter?

*

Thank you, all you crazy people who put up Christmas lights. The wacky palm trees on Westridge, the whole neighborhoods of globes of lights hanging from all the trees, the little cul-de-sacs that are ablaze with Christmas decorations -- that's right! Let our celebration be seen from space. Let astronomers on other worlds try to figure out what astronomical anomaly is causing the fluctuations in the light levels from planet Earth every December.

Thank you also to the people whose decorations use no electricity -- you who put out banners, or sculptures, or statues, or creches, or big air-filled Santas and Frostys.

Thank you to those who put out candles in sand-ballasted paper bags, lighting the road for passersby. Thank you to those who sing, who play instruments, who broadcast holiday music. Thank you to those who tell stories, who carry out family traditions, who go visiting the sick, who share with the needy, who bring cheer to the lonely.

Thank you to those who care nothing for Christmas, but are nevertheless patient with those of us to whom it means much: Thank you for your tolerance, for not trying to put a stop to other people's joy.

Thank you to the stores that commercialize Christmas: Imagine this, a great nation whose retail year is powered by a holiday in which people buy gifts for others. I hope you all made boatloads of money from the generosity of your customers -- stay in business for another year, my friends.

Thank you to those who understand that the lights and decorations and celebrations are not competitive; they are cumulative. So what if your neighbor's house is flooded with lights, and yours is not?

If all you can afford, or all you wish to display is a simple decoration -- a string of lights wound around your porch railing, a candle in a window, your Christmas tree showing between the open curtains, a simple wreath or ribbon on your door -- then your contribution to the festive season is enough; it is gratefully received; I thank you for it.

If you believe in Christ, then it is the birth of the Messiah we celebrate together. If you do not believe, but you enjoy the public celebration and gift-giving, the Santa Clausification of the world, the pleasure in the change of seasons, then we celebrate together as Americans fulfilling a long American tradition, and I'm as glad for your contribution as I am for that of fellow Christians.

The next year is one in which history will be made. Elections, weddings, births and deaths, wars and times of peace and good will, graduations and birthdays, sorrows and disappointments, all will come, as they come every year.

This much we each control: How we will respond to the good and bad things that happen to us, and those that happen to others.

May we hold our tongues when tempted to criticize, and instead celebrate what we approve of.

When we see a need, let us do what is within our power to mend what's wrong or supply what's lacking.

Let our words to those who need us most be filled with love and kindness, gentleness and mercy. Let us be as courteous to our spouses and children as we are to our employers or to total strangers.

Each day is just a day -- the sun rising, the sun setting, some kind of weather -- until we make it something more, a day that lives in someone's memory, a little brighter because we made it so. That is within our power, every one of us.

Happy New Year!


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