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Skip “Sherlock Holmes” And Watch “A Christmas Tale”

Above: One of my favorite scenes from "A Christmas Tale" ("Un conte de Noël") by French filmmaker Arnaud Desplechin. A play performed by the Vuillard children and a family tradition.

Going to a movie on Christmas is a tradition in my family. Since I'm usually in the snowy hinterlands of the Great Lakes region, we'd bundle up after a day of visiting (and eating!), and head to the multiplex to watch the latest blockbuster release.

Robert Downey, Jr. and Jude Law as Holmes and Watson in "Sherlock Holmes."
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Above: Robert Downey, Jr. and Jude Law as Holmes and Watson in "Sherlock Holmes."

This year I stayed in San Diego, which meant going to the movies didn't require a sweater and it took less than ten minutes to get from tree-side to stadium seating. No brushing the snow off the car or pumping the brakes en route. This year, we passed a shirtless, tanned gentleman strolling along our mountain road. My movie-going tradition suddenly became a study in contrasts to every Christmas past.

We saw "Sherlock Holmes," Guy Ritchie's action-packed take on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's literary detective. Robert Downey Jr. stars as Holmes and Jude Law is the devoted Dr. Watson. Downey is as charming as ever, but his talent and charisma are wasted in a second-rate film. Downey can generate on-screen chemistry with anyone, and he and Law snap and crackle with fun repartee and lots of homoerotic tension, but they can't save this bloated dud.

Robert Downey, Jr. as Sherlock Holmes in a boxing match from the new movie by director Guy Ritchie.
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Above: Robert Downey, Jr. as Sherlock Holmes in a boxing match from the new movie by director Guy Ritchie.

"Sherlock Holmes" disappoints because Ritchie is a bad director. He's enamored with fast-cutting, slo-mo fighting, and gritty, cluttered, industrial landscapes. Holmes and Watson are redrawn as action heroes in this movie. Instead of late nights by the fire, cerebral and pipe-smoking, this Holmes spends his nights shirtless and boxing in an underground match, one well attended by tramps, swindlers, and devotees of bad hygiene. I'm not so opposed to this brawny take on the character, just the bad execution of the story, including a ridiculous evil plot cooked up by the most boring villain in decades.

Don't worry, though, I have an alternative suggestion that couldn't be more different in tone, story and style. And, it doesn't require leaving the house. Last year's "A Christmas Tale" ("Un conte de Noël") by French filmmaker Arnaud Desplechin, is currently available "On Demand" on Sundance.

Catherine Deneuve in "A Christmas Tale" ("Un conte de Noël").
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Above: Catherine Deneuve in "A Christmas Tale" ("Un conte de Noël").

The great Catherine Deneuve stars as the Vuillard family matriarch whose children are gathering for the holidays. Deneuve's character, Junon, needs a bone marrow transplant and only two of the family members are compatible, and both have "issues."

Now before you roll your eyes in honor of my pretension (Seriously? a French film about a dying woman gathering her brood for a family drama on Christmas????), give "A Christmas Tale" a chance. Mathieu Amalric ("The Diving Bell and the Butterfly") also stars as the family black sheep and he's mesmerizing. The movie is funny, touching, sad, very French, longish (but held my attention), and free of the cheap sentimentalism that usually accompanies movies about families gathering around the holidays.

If that's not your thing and you really want a blockbuster, go see "Avatar." I liked it more than Beth, our film KPBS film critic, though I agree with her that the story and dialogue are gratingly bad. But the visuals! The 3-D! The plant life and floating mountains! It's gorgeous. Check out the interesting discussion in the comments section on Beth's blog.

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