James McAvoy

Sherlock Gnomes (2018)

Here’s a pressing case for Sherlock Gnomes – why is this movie so terrible? Its predecessor, Gnomeo and Juliet, was a clever, fun-spirited retelling of a work with no shortage of creative retellings, but this movie, which tries to do the same, fails to stir up any excitement. Unlike the first gnome-y installment, it doesn’t attach itself to a familiar or beloved story, and though the characters may be well known, they are drawn from two distinct worlds that don’t have a natural meeting place. The star-crossed lovers intersect with a pair of uptight detectives but never occupy one cohesive narrative space.

Since Gnomeo (James McAvoy) and Juliet (Emily Blunt) manage to make it out of their first movie alive, we’re venturing into fresh territory, and this time around they are preoccupied with post-marital troubles. Now it looks like their marriage might be the casualty. Their bickering is just a lot of petty back and forth though. If it’s supposed to be something more, we wouldn’t know. We hardly see what’s gnawing at their relationship before the story jumps to Sherlock (Johnny Depp) and Watson (Chiwetel Ejiofor).

The two sleuths are hard at work trying to trying to catch Moriarty (Jamie Demetriou), a Kewpie-like pie mascot who’s been kidnapping a bunch of gnomes throughout the city. This Moriarty is low-key bonkers, more manic energy than deliberate murder-maker like his counterpart in Sherlock and Elementary. He seems content just causing chaos, which is appropriate since this is a family film. When Gnomeo and Juliet’s family and friends go missing, lovers and detectives join forces to get to the bottom of the mystery. At least that is what should happen. Instead, Gnomeo and Juliet, being simple gnome folk, lack serious crime fighting chops and instead just tag along while mostly Sherlock does the work.

I’m game for another attempt at literary mash-up, one that is more purposeful and that uses the diverse characters and plot points to support one another. But as this film shows, bringing together two popular literary universes (do we have to use that word now?) does not in and of itself generate a good or meaningful story. Even the set pieces are dodgy, particularly the most colorful one set in a Chinatown toy/souvenir shop. That Sherlock smugly announces clocks are unlucky gifts in Chinese culture does not make it less racist or self-aware. Also, if you wouldn’t have a white actress to wear a cocktail umbrella as a vaguely Asian disguise, and that’s a big ask, you shouldn’t have your white gnome to do the same. I’m only giving Sherlock Gnomes credit for its care in bringing the minor gnomes to life. When the mossy figures are unpacked and newly settling into their misty London backyard, you want to scoop them up and give them a good clean.

Alt Title: Gnomeo and Juliet 2: Sherlock Gnomes
Released: 2011
Prod: David Furnish, Steve Hamilton Shaw, Carolyn Soper
Dir: John Stevenson
Writer: Ben Zazove
Cast: James McAvoy, Emily Blunt, Johnny Depp, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Mary J. Blige, Jamie Demetriou, Michael Caine, Maggie Smith, Ashley Jensen, Matt Lucas, Stephen Merchant, Julie Walters, Richard Wilson
Time: 88 min
Lang: English
Country: United Kingdom
Reviewed: 2018

The Conspirator

the conspirator

In parallel tales of plans gone awry, this movie about conspirators of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination goes much the same way as the assassins and assailants. Many stories are told about Lincoln, fewer about those who killed him, fewer still about Mary Surratt, the lone woman convicted of and hanged for her role in the president’s murder.

Director Robert Redford and James D. Solomon seize on this forgotten piece of Americana but in doing so, they trade a compelling story for a dull civics lesson on due process. Surratt, the filmmakers tell us, was a victim of a distrusting and vengeful climate stirred up by the Civil War and Lincoln’s death. Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (played as a non-entity by Kevin Kline) and the War Department, eager to restore calm and its authority hastily mounted a military trial for the civilian defendants.

And so 1865 Washington becomes the landscape for which Redford and company ask Americans to examine their own post-9/11 pursuit of justice, namely Guantanamo. Surratt’s guilt or innocence is immaterial and the film does little to explore that. Instead, it uses history to indict and judge present day actions and how the country does or does not continue to play loose with the Constitution.

This makes for a useful extra credit project for a high school history class but not for a good film. In choosing agenda over narrative, the filmmakers lose the stories of the people at the heart of it. Robin Wright delivers a wrought and finely tuned performance as Surratt, but her character remains literally and figuratively wrapped under layers of black silk. Only in certain moments does she become an active player in the drama of a president’s assassination. One such time is when her daughter Anna, played with restrained anguish by Evan Rachel Wood, testifies against her brother on her behalf, and the two are kept apart by a curtain of soldiers despite tearful protestation.

Similarly, Surratt’s inexperienced defender Frederick Aiken does little more than stand in as the film’s righteous conscience. James McAvoy has little character to draw on but plenty of platitudes, which he delivers with vigor. But these quickly bore and annoy Aiken’s miscast and poorly written friends, including Justin Long and Alexis Bledel, who also want to hear something more substantial than constant cries for a fair trial and about nebulous American ideals.

The story of Lincoln’s assassination is one of many unexplored strands, but these are not used to ground the historical characters and events of “The Conspirator.” One is treated to a parade of names and facts but comes away with no clearer sense about the people who (may have) conspired to kill the president nor the people involved in the trial.

Released: 2010
Prod: Robert Redford, Brian Falk, Bill Holderman
Dir: Robert Redford
Writer: James D. Solomon
Cast: James McAvoy, Robin Wright, Tom Wilkinson, Kevin Kline, Evan Rachel Wood, Johnny Simmons, Alexis Bledel, Justin Long, Danny Huston, Toby Kebbell, Norman Reedus, Stephen Root, Jonathan Groff, John Cullum, Colm Meaney
Time: 123 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2014

Gnomeo and Juliet

gnomeo and juliet

The beloved bard’s tales, forever ripe for reinvention, gets the animated treatment in this kid-friendly reimagining of Shakespeare’s popular play. We lay our scene in fair Verona, a pleasant English street, where two households both alike in dignity hate each other’s guts. Ms. Montague (Julie Walters) and Mr. Capulet (Richard Wilson) are warring neighbors who have a penchant for lawn ornaments. Their ceramic gnomes and plastic animals spring to life and carry on the feud when their owners are not looking, marking one of the more creative use of garden decorations.

Montague’s blue gnomes are ruled by the matron Lady Bluebury (Maggie Smith), whose nimble son Gnomeo (James McAvoy) engages in dangerous lawnmower races with Tybalt (Jason Statham) of Capulet’s red gnomes. They are led by Lord Redbrick (Michael Caine), who keeps close watch over his daughter Juliet (Emily Blunt). The spirited heroine resents being literally put on a pedestal, which her father does in order to keep her from being smashed; it’s a dangerous life. One night, she sneaks out in disguise and bumps into a camouflaged Gnomeo. It’s love at first sight for the two, until they realize they have just cavorted with the enemy.

The films hews close to its source material but adds a few flourishes. Featherstone (Jim Cummings) is a lonely plastic flamingo, separated from his love when his owners divorced and divvied up the lawn ornaments. He warns the young couple that others’ hate can destroy their love. Gnomeo’s exile following Tybalt’s violent death by lawn mower crash leads him to a giant statue of Shakespeare (Patrick Stewart) in the park. He learns that similar stories have ended in tragedy, which he considers a load of rubbish.

The animation does not jump out – although the film was screened in 3D, but it is bright and cheerful. The gnomes surprisingly retain their gnomish figures. Juliet is a good deal frumpier than her animated counterparts. Meanwhile, Gnomeo is handsomely rotund and sporting a thin silver beard, as is the fashion. And though the movie is self-referential (I liked the Tempest Teapot truck), it manages to avoid tripping over too many pop culture references. Elton John, who supervised the music, provides the soundtrack, and we won’t count him as contemporary. The best part is the voice cast. It is a parade of Britishness, with a sparky Dolly Parton and growling Hulk Hogan thrown in.

“Crocodile Rock” performed by Nelly Furtado, featuring dancing gnomes:

“Hello Hello” performed by Elton John and Lady Gaga:

Released: 2011
Prod: Baker Bloodworth, David Furnish, Steve Hamilton Shaw
Dir: Kelly Asbury
Writer: John R. Smith, Rob Sprackling
Cast: James McAvoy, Emily Blunt, Michael Caine, Maggie Smith, Jason Statham, Patrick Stewart, Ashley Jensen, Matt Lucas, Stephen Merchant, Ozzy Osbourne, Jim Cummings, Hulk Hogan, Julie Walters, Richard Wilson, Dolly Parton
Time: 84 min
Lang: English
Country: United Kingdom
Reviewed: 2014