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Movie Review: Mr. Holmes

MrHolmesPosterLaura Linney and Ian McKellen were the main attraction for an audience at last night’s sold-out screening of director Bill Condon’s new movie about an aging Sherlock Holmes, Mr. Holmes. This hints at the film’s marketing problems. But first let me acknowledge these fine actors, who kindly appeared at ArcLight Cinemas on Hollywood Boulevard to promote Mr. Holmes.

Mr. McKellen, whose career ranges from many Shakespeare roles to parts in the popular X-Men and Lord of the Rings movie series, is a witty old ham. His humor is dry, though not as biting as it is on his PBS series Vicious, and he knows how to relax and enjoy himself, which I think is the source of his appeal. But he knows what to take seriously, too. Telling a tale of an actor’s crippling self-doubt, he deftly conveyed both the challenge of being an actor and the impact of being a critic. The upshot he delivered is a tacit urge to think about the potential impact of one’s criticism or communication before it’s finally rendered.

This is crucial and, in his confession of vulnerability, Mr. McKellen punctuated the point. The openly gay actor also cited James Whale, an openly gay director he portrayed in Condon’s Gods and Monsters (1998), as a hero and he answered an intelligent question about his criteria for taking a role. He said it’s solely whether he would want to see the story. Linney, too, answered the same question, though her answer included an additional aspect. Linney, known for playing thoughtful, complicated characters such as Clara in Condon’s Kinsey (2004) and a love interest in the final season of Frasier, said that she reads a script first for story, then examines whether the character as written can even be played. This second point she said comes from the fact that she thinks many of today’s scripts are written not to depict a story with characters but to convince a filmmaker to make the script into a movie, often at the expense of story, character and theme.

Linney is as reserved as one might expect—though it’s hard to be assertive next to the charismatic Ian McKellen—and as thoughtful, too. She knew exactly why she accepted the dowdy housekeeper role in Mr. Holmes, she said: Bill Condon, who directed her in Kinsey, Ian McKellen as her co-star, the subject of Sherlock Holmes—Linney says she’s been a “fanatic” of the character since she was a child—and an opportunity to shoot in England. Her story of overcoming self-doubt was the evening’s most powerful moment. She talked of attending acting school at Julliard and, after feeling inadequate and fearing failure, wanting to drop out. An instructor took note of her decision and, choosing to physically remove her from the parts of the school with which she was most familiar, he told her to snap out of it, essentially instructing her that the purpose of an education is to learn from failure, which, in turn, seeds success.

Unfortunately, Mr. Holmes, despite the cast’s efforts, is not a success.

With revolving subplots, starring Mr. McKellen as Sherlock Holmes toward the end of his life, this is neither a leisurely stroll through his legendary past, as one might have reason to expect, nor an intellectual odyssey accounting for an unsolved or bungled case. Yet both are implied in the premise of Mr. Holmes, which seeks to cash in on what draws the audience to Sherlock Holmes: his use of reason. This is why he’s enduringly popular in Benedict Cumberbatch’s brilliant portrayal for PBS and gets an audience even in awful movies such as Robert Downey, Jr.‘s recent Sherlock Holmes fare.

Condon, a filmmaker with a penchant for odd and unusual figures, such as James Whale and Alfred Kinsey, diminishes the faculty of reason, choosing to emphasize instead the flaws, mistakes and failures of Sherlock Holmes. All of this robs the movie of suspense and drama. Not only is seeing the hero’s feet of clay, or, in this case, wrinkles and sour expressions, utterly boring, it is also terribly predictable. The two major plot points, including the climax, can be seen an English countryside away and this is irredeemable, especially in a movie about Sherlock Holmes. Certainly, Mr. Holmes has the attention to detail and he is adept at being rational. He sees the smallest point as part of a larger pattern when warranted and is able to discern the essentials. But Condon, basing his movie on a book, portrays his deteriorating mind in senility or memory loss, leading to endless speculation about a particular past case involving a husband, a wife and a mystic.

In the bleak resolution, which culminates with a climax of his relationship with an intelligent and precociously fatherless boy (Milo Parker) and the keeping of bees, Sherlock Holmes emerges as pained, guilt-ridden and miserable. After declaring that he’s “never had much use for imagination” and proclaiming a false dichotomy between fact and fiction reflecting a total distortion of how to use both—later contradicting himself—he finally purges his self-loathing with an admission that he’s consumed by fear and, that he’s “selfish” (gasp!) which sadly he’s never portrayed to be in this dull, dreary movie. Mr. Holmes concludes with Sherlock Holmes on his knees, brought entirely and literally down to earth, the opposite of his upright posture in the movie’s poster and how he arguably ought to be seen. That he succumbs to the sin of writing fiction in order to tell lies that spare someone’s feelings completes the inversion. This is Sherlock Holmes having been in the wrong. This is Sherlock as ultimately undone.

Some might protest that he’s redeemed by being somewhat “humanized” for once, with human, again, meaning weak, fragile, puny and insignificant and that he’s right in a final analysis. But he’s not right about what truly matters, he’s only right about a fact that bears no practical relation to anyone’s interests and this comes after considerable damage is done, even on Mr. Holmes‘ terms. None of this is the fault of Laura Linney, who as Mrs. Munro the widowed housekeeper and mother to the boy is excellent, or Ian McKellen, who, as usual, is supremely watchable in everything he says and does on screen. Their characters’ relationship is the best part of the ineffectual Mr. Holmes, which contains subtexts and half-formed elements that might have made an interesting whole.

I suspect that the lead actors did Bill Condon, whose Dreamgirls is similarly flat but brighter, a favor by appearing in Hollywood to promote the movie. I wanted to like it and I’m glad to be the beneficiary of their goodwill. Their thoughts are more enlightened than the ill-conceived Mr. Holmes.

Book Review: The Lagoon: How Aristotle Invented Science

TheLagoonbyLeroiExamining Aristotle with wonder, admiration and scholarly attention to detail, biology professor Armand Marie Leroi creates a fascinating account of how he thinks Aristotle invented science in The Lagoon (Viking, $27.95), which goes on sale this week.

The writing is excellent because it serves the storytelling. So, while this is a meticulous work, it is not pompous or too technical, though of course this depends upon one’s interest in and knowledge of science. Teeming with questions about reality, nature and life, London-based BBC commentator and science writer Leroi delivers a leisurely, structured narrative of Aristotle’s favorite subject, biology, and Aristotle’s focus on the animal’s life. Retracing geographic points of study and discovery, he covers Aristotle’s writings in detail, errors and breathtaking observations and advancements alike, with reverence for the father of Western philosophy.

For example, after taking the reader through citations, tales and journeys into Aristotle’s pursuits, Leroi concludes that Aristotle’s ethics underscore his passion and amount to the idea that:

The best way that a man can spend his life is in contemplation for that has no utilitarian goal; it’s pleasurable in itself. Elsewhere [Aristotle] relates a story. Someone asked Anaxagoras what was the point of being born, to which the great physiologos replied: ‘to study the order and heaven of the whole cosmos’. The answer rang true to Aristotle; he told the story at least twice. But he warns that none of us can ever achieve a life of pure contemplation. There are so many things, the mundane things of everyday life, and the human things—the sense is disparaging—that distract us from the divine life of the mind. Nevertheless, we should ‘strain every sinew’ to ignore them and devote ourselves to pure reason. That is where true happiness lies.”

For his part, Leroi observes that: “Had I a God—had I a God—it would be Aristotle’s God.” The Lagoon finishes telling a compelling story, which is really a tale of Western civilization, about renting buildings at the Lyceum, teaching and, always, seeking to know more to live life here on earth.

“In our day,” Lerio asks in conclusion, “philosophers and scientists are distinct academic castes with distinct ways of arguing. But who is to say that, more than two thousand years ago, a man could not be both at once?” With glossaries, appendices, notes, bibliography (including a volume by Aristotelian scholar Robert Mayhew) and an index, The Lagoon is an Aristotle story well discovered, considered and told.

Book Review: Leonard Maltin’s 2015 Movie Guide

Maltin2015MovieGuidefinalThis is the last edition of Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide, which is available tomorrow in both mass market and trade paperback (click on the book jacket image to buy it on Amazon).

The reference book is an excellent resource. Each motion picture is entered alphabetically in boldface, in fine print, with parenthetical year of release, an indication if the movie’s in color, running time, director and cast and whether it’s on DVD or other home entertainment formats. The Movie Guide, which film scholar Maltin tells me is compiled and cross referenced by a staff of 20 or more, also includes trade association ratings and awards information (which don’t mean much to me). A plot and key character synopsis is bundled with a few words of opinion, accompanied by a star evaluation, about the picture. The final edition of Maltin’s Movie Guide includes an author’s introduction and guide to symbols.

Leonard Maltin (read my 2011 interview here and last week’s interview here) is an extremely knowledgeable source for movies, especially Disney movies, and Hollywood history. At age 63, he still writes books and posts for his Web site, teaches at University of Southern California’s film school and does regular media appearances. His work is fact-based and detail-oriented. The best part of his Movie Guide is its ability to identify and address popular and essential aspects of a movie and its legacy. Occasionally, though not often, an insight comes through which has not previously been named elsewhere by other writers. Maltin primarily deals here as a reporter of facts, whatever one thinks of his conclusions about movies, and his attention to what’s essential about a movie and accuracy is impeccable, especially when compared to today’s sloppy online copy-editing and pathetic lack of proofreading. As a movie journalist, I never rely on movie Web sites alone (if at all) for information. Maltin’s Movie Guide is best for crucial research and cross referencing.

The final 2015 edition is no exception. Though reviews tend to be conformist and he generally likes what most critics like, and scorns what most critics scorn, his analysis is always thoughtful and comprehensive. This handy volume is essential for anyone who cares about movies – watching, enjoying and studying them – and it is evident that he takes movies seriously. Too many regard movies as a cavalier, unserious indulgence or, alternately, as inscrutable works of art. Leonard Maltin, whose best work I hope is yet to come, understands that movies have the potential to be powerful and are meant for general audiences all over the world. His Movie Guide, with over 15,000 entries (13,000 on DVD), is the movie industry’s most definitive yet accessible expression of this wonderful truth about movies.

Movie Review: The Giver

Giver posterThe Giver doesn’t generate enough tension and conflict to sufficiently recreate a collectivist dystopia against which to rebel. This is too bad, because the film is poetic, elegiac and at times subtle and moving in a secular and spiritual way. This is also too bad because art in the West desperately needs to ignite the passions of the youngest minds to defy conformity and resist the rise of statism.

The Giver is too timid to light the match, though it does enlighten and inspire if you know what to look for. But you have to know in advance. Otherwise it’s just a picture show with pretty words and people.

What a show. Beautifully filmed in black and white and based on the novel by Lois Lowry, with surges of color that bring the theme to life, The Giver, directed by Philip Noyce, gives the audience its strict collectivist dystopia straight with lines about pure egalitarianism – all people are treated as equal in all aspects regardless of differences and ability – and the goal of a total, government-controlled life. From birth to death, the government dictates every aspect of one’s existence. With Meryl Streep as a matriarch in limp strands of gray hair with bangs, it’s like watching a withered old white woman doing a version of preachy Michelle Obama dictating what food to eat and nagging that you didn’t build that; the collective did.

The collective reigns supreme over the individual in this sterile, bright future, which of course means certain clusters of power-lusters control everyone else, so that even on high school graduation day, when the trio of friends Asher (Cameron Monaghan), Fiona (Odeya Rush) and heroic Jonas (Brenton Thwaites) are commanded by the state to submit to their assigned vocations ala Anthem by Ayn Rand, as Big Mother (Streep) coos like it’s a guitar mass with kumbaya that “today we honor differences” and really means that We the Ordained dictate what those differences shall be. Watching The Giver is like seeing ObamaCare dramatized – the state dictating winners and losers while denouncing winning and losing – and in this sense it’s fabulously clever filmmaking.

It really is. With deliberation in every scene, the fresh-faced youths bound forth in life with enthusiasm and idealism, eager to live large what they’ve been taught are the four virtues: intelligence, integrity, courage and “the capacity to see beyond [the range of the moment]”. In fact, these are virtues though the kids soon discover that the Female Deity they worship defines each by a standard which may or may not match their own. The ultimate goal of the post-climate controlled society is to fit each individual into the collective. Everyone, it appears, must submit to the group. This means no expressing emotions, no public displays of preference, no identities for infants of questionable value to the greater good – especially males, apparently – it’s a sexless feminist-Puritanical totalitarian regime. There’s no kissing, but at least there’s no porn and nobody’s obese.

Enter masculine, upright Jonas, whose assigned vocation is somewhat murky as the Receiver. The more he learns, at the hands of master Jeff Bridges as the Giver of memories, the more he wants to sense, to experience and to think, know and feel. Of course, with everyone including his mother (Katie Holmes) chanting “we forgive you” like it’s Jonestown, Guyana, and his own friends reminding him that “we need sameness”, the urge to think different poses a problem.

With powerful scenes and images of winter, joyous people in harmony – as against vacant people bound by force – and an image of the lone man who stood against a government tank in Communist China’s Tiananmen Square, the ethereal movie with its conflicted love triangle evokes Gattaca and, faintly, We the Living. As each of the three pure-minded youths faces the choice to sink into submission or rise to defiance, ultimately with Bridges as the Giver and Streep as the Taker of life, The Giver stirs the wise old soul to a knowing, bitter and almost breathtaking resolution.

But unlike its protege, it requires foreknowledge of what a society based on total state control means and it is too vague and unspecific in its beautifully rendered affirmations, which unfortunately include faith as a kind of innocent belief in the good, even though the tyranny of conformity depicted is impossible without widespread submission to belief without evidence. The three young leads are exquisite in their roles (especially Thwaites) and The Giver‘s allegory is a reward, with a well-integrated theme about doubt – Jonas asks “how do I know…?” and eventually the girl assigned as his younger sister stares ahead to no one in particular in open church and dares to ask “how do they know…?” – with lines of real affirmative power always emphasizing the role of free will, free choice and the individual’s right to assert it. The role of a single baby boy, too, the antithesis of what this monstrous anti-life feminist dystopia represents, is crucial and joyful at times to behold.

It is also impossible not to notice in The Giver, and this is one of my favorite aspects of Noyce’s poetic approach to the adaptation, that solitude is treated as sacred to man’s existence. That this comes in conjunction with a man’s unconquered delight at nurturing a child is a rare sight in today’s movies. It’s not enough to give The Giver what it needs the most: an explicit depiction of what the collective does to those who deviate from dictatorship. Still, it’s worth a look for individualists who know better and think ahead.


New Articles on New Trier’s Experiment

“You asked me once, what was in Room 101. I told you that you knew the answer already. Everyone knows it. The thing that is in Room 101 is the worst thing in the world.” — O’Brien, 1984 by George Orwell

1984It is with irony that this quote from Orwell’s classic novel comes to mind. I recently wrote for a suburban Chicago publication about what was for me a painful, if mercifully brief, modern education experience during my youth. It was a high school within a high school called the Center for Self-Directed Learning, part of a New Left educational movement that sprouted in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The Center, as it was known, occupied New Trier’s room 101.

The former study hall had been converted in 1972 into the place where 600 students, including U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk (R, IL) and actress Virginia Madsen, would enter and exit during the course of their high school studies. The Center existed for 10 years without grades, teaching or classes. I recently interviewed the school’s co-founder, Arline Paul (read the interview here), the only New Trier faculty member to serve during the Center’s entire existence. Mrs. Paul, who had taught me political science in the traditional high school, was assigned as my “facilitator”, and she was kind enough to grant me an interview for the local newspaper. I asked tough questions and she answered them. It is interesting to go back and revisit high school as a journalist covering this radical experiment. I also reviewed the book of faculty and student memoirs she co-edited (read the review here). I wanted to provide a clear, factual account of this example of modern education.

My overall experience in government-sponsored education was atrocious. It was so bad that the quote from Orwell’s 1984 – which, ironically, I read while enrolled as a student in the Center – strikes me as an apt prelude for these articles about the Center. I’ve already heard from one reader who defends the whim-based approach to education. I have also heard from another reader. He tells me that he is young and that he, too, experienced the ravages of today’s modern, anti-conceptual education. He wrote to tell me that, after reading what I reported about the widely acclaimed New Trier, he thinks that his experience was worse. This is what I hope to counter. This is why I wrote these pieces, which I intend as an honest report and review of the facts of modern education.