Young Sherlock Holmes

December 27, 2011

“The game is afoot!” cries the greatest detective who ever graced the pages of imagination. However, the face from which the phrase emanates has not yet felt the touch of a razor, and the speaker is too young to have smoked the famous pipe. That’s because this is Young Sherlock Holmes, the story of the sleuth’s crucial boyhood adventure.

If the title has the suggestion of spoofiness to it—a la Mel Brooks’s Young Frankenstein—don’t worry. This is a straight version of the boyhood days of Holmes, without any cute jokes at the character’s expense.

Naturally, there could be no Holmes without Watson, and as the film begins, an adolescent John Watson is making his way into a new boys’ school. As he enters the dormitory, he hears the anguished sounds of a violin being tortured. They player is a lean youth who expresses his fury at not having mastered the instrument.

“How long have you been playing?” Watson asks.

“Three days,” replies the analytical stranger, who could be no one but Sherlock Holmes himself.

A friendship develops, which must sustain the two through a harrowing adventure to come: the strange case of some angry Egyptians, who have built their own pyramid in a seedy section of London and plan to kill a batch of Britishers, using a hallucinogenic drug shot through a blowpipe.

The film moves from the scenes at the boys’ school, where Holmes first displays his deductive powers and from which he is wrongly expelled, to this wild adventure, as our heroes force a showdown at the ornate pyramid temple full of chanting Egyptians (the film is lavishly mounted).

This lively plot is an invention of scriptwriter Chris Columbus, who also wrote Gremlins and The Goonies, which were produced, like this film, by Steven Spielberg’s company. It owes nothing to Arthur Conan Doyle, in terms of plot, but it does take pains to be true to the spirit of Doyle’s detective.

Much credit should also go to director Barry Levinson (Diner). Columbus’s script is a bit heavy on laborious exposition, and the film gets off to a meandering start, but Levinson’s affection for the characters carries the day.

He’s chosen three wonderful actors—none of them star faces—for his principals. Nicholas Rowe is a dead ringer for what you imagine the young Holmes must have looked like. Even his long, worried stride is appropriate for the character.

At Watson, Alan Cox, a squat, bespectacled boy, gets most of the laughs in the film, as well he should. He effortlessly communicates the mix of exasperation and hero worship that the young Watson would have for Holmes.

Sophie Ward, a radiant young actress, plays the young lass who is the love of Holmes’ life. And Anthony Higgins is memorable as Holmes’ demanding school mentor.

One thing: Don’t leave during the end credits. There’s a tasty little surprise tacked on after the credits, which should please fans of the detective, and suggests that, though the film may be over, the game is still very much afoot.

First published in the Herald, December 5, 1985

It doesn’t seem to be especially remembered today except as a culty item for the Goonies generation. At the time, I thought it created a rather nice Sherlockian glow, but I’m worried about actually seeing it again.

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Adventures in Babysitting

November 16, 2011

There are many reasons to hate Chris Columbus. This is a guy whose first screenplay sale was a little thing called Gremlins, which was purchased and produced by none other than Steven Spielberg and which went on to make a mint.

He wrote a couple of other scripts under Spielberg’s wing, The Goonies and Young Sherlock Holmes, and was even tapped to write the next Indiana Jones movie.

Now he’s made his directing debut, which is what all those frustrated screenwriters want to do anyway. And he’s 27 years old. You see why he’s easy to hate?

The film that Columbus has directed at this disgustingly youthful age is called Adventures in Babysitting, and unfortunately the title is just about the best thing about the movie. Columbus didn’t write this one—a first-timer named David Simkins did—but it shares with Columbus’s earlier work a penchant for cute head-over-heels action.

It’s a kind of After Hours for teenagers. A perky 17-year-old high school student (Elisabeth Shue) takes a babysitting job in the suburbs when her boyfriend stands her up for the night. Her charges are a pint-sized little girl (Maia Brewton) and a 15-year-old guy (Keith Coogan). Well, the guy isn’t really under her care, but he’s got major crush on her, so he and his geeky friend (Anthony Rapp) hang around to make moon eyes at the babysitter.

The babysitting adventure really begins with a phone call from a pal stranded at the downtown Chicago bus station, begging for a ride home. Shue piles her three hell-raisers in mom’s car, and heads into town for a wild and semi-surreal night of catastrophes.

Some of these scrapes are gently amusing, yet most of the film’s situations are so heavily contrived that they undercut the fun. When Shue & Co. stumble into a smoky jazz club and are forced to improvise a blues number to earn their passage, it’s sort of funny. Funny, except that even with a generous suspension of disbelief, I can’t quite buy the concept of a blues club that lets a quartet of suburban squares on its stage, or that forces them to sing, badly, as an exit visa.

The movie has a string of these near-miss scenes. Columbus can’t quite find the rhythms or the look to kick this sitcom into high gear. For instance, his cast is likable, but they’re on a low flame. The acting honors go to people in smaller roles: Calvin Levels, immediately intriguing as a soft-spoken car thief who takes the kids into a dangerous circle of crime; and John Chandler, former Sam Peckinpah regular, as the nasty leader of that ring.

And one other actor, for trivia buffs: Vincent D’Onofrio, who gives a sensational performance as the fat, frightened Marine in Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket, here turns up in a small role as a garage owner. If you don’t recognize him, it’s forgivable; he’s about 60 pounds lighter here than he was in Kubrick’s movie.

Adventures in Babysitting has “summer movie” written all over it, but it’s not even quite good enough to make the grade in that unexalted category. And we should be even harder on Chris Columbus for not making the material work. He has no excuse, since his own experiences with babysitters are presumably more recent than those of any other Hollywood director.

First published in the Herald, July 1987

I guess you can sense that my own screenwriting efforts were not attracting much attention, thus my enmity for CC (which I hope comes across as tongue-in-cheek, mostly). He has gone on, of course, to much more. The movie’s got its fans, and it fits into that run of post-Bueller teen escapades that were around for a while. And it’s got Elisabeth Shue, a should’ve-been-bigger-star who didn’t go there.


Gremlins

December 21, 2010

Gremlins may well be the most sheerly outrageous movie of this about-to-be-busy summer season. It’s a giddy, frenetic horror/fantasy stuffed with jokes, frights, and hyperactive little creatures called gremlins.

In the opening scenes, in a rundown store in Chinatown, an inept inventor (Hoyt Axton) picks up a cute pet for his son. He is sold the creature with a warning: Never let it in the sunlight, never get it wet, and never—ever—feed it after midnight.

Of course, all those things will happen to the adorable fuzzball. It gets wet, which causes it to multiply. Then the offspring are accidentally slipped some fried chicken after midnight and they experience a transformation. When they leave their cocoons they turn mean and set out on a rampage of dirty tricks.

Before long, the small-town setting is overrun by the beasties, and it’s up to Axton’s son (Zach Galligan) and his girlfriend (Pheobe Cates) to try to beat the little monsters.

From the basic outline, there’s no way to convey the madcap high spirits of this tale. Director Joe Dante has created a fantasy small town that exists as a kind of movie memory: He’s given it the flavor of It’s a Wonderful Life (which plays on a TV screen at one point) and the fairy-tale atmosphere of The Wizard of Oz (Polly Holliday plays a hissable bank owner as the Wicked Witch of the West).

The look of the movie is sitcom-ordinary, but Dante pushes things into high gear when the gremlins get loose on Christmas Eve. The mayhem that results is scary, funny, and absurd. It’s also ferociously imaginative. You can picture the filmmakers sitting around cooking up ideas: “Wouldn’t it be wild if the gremlins did this—and this, and this?”

It’s at this point that Gremlins jettisons any sort of realistic underpinnings, but the film is just too fast and clever for that to really be a problem. Besides, the whole idea of gremlins is that they’re bugaboos who get into the machinery and make mischief, so it’s fitting that the movie starts going crazy when they take over the screen. (The gremlins were created by Chris Walas, who deserves star billing.)

The screenplay was discovered by Steven Spielberg when he was looking for someone to write the script for Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Spielberg, who is credited as executive producer, may have seen the opportunity to do a flip side of his E.T., and probably jumped at the chance to do something less sweet. Choosing Dante to direct—he’d made the witty horror films Piranha and The Howling—was a brilliant stroke. There isn’t a lax moment in the film.

Dante is a sharp satirist and a very able conductor of action. There’s not a whole lot of emotional depth among the people onscreen, but that’s not really what the movie is about. It’s a bright, noisy funhouse, and Dante is the gremlin behind the camera—throwing everything he can think of into the mixer. Except that, unlike the gremlins, there’s a method to Dante’s madness, and somehow the finished product emerges as both efficient and stylish.

First published in the Herald, May 1984.

That screenwriter was Chris Columbus, who went on the bigger things. I’m not sure what I was thinking in proposing that Gremlins had anything like “realistic underpinnings” to begin with, but so be it. Of course Gremlins 2 pushes even more into the realm of satire, and ought to be better known. I go on more about Joe Dante’s movies in a piece at the Crop Duster.