Why do you go to the movies?
It's a question basic to knowing if you'll like the films we'll be describing in this week's column.
Do you just want entertainment? Do you like to trace the structure and development of the plot? Do you want to learn things about the period in which the film is set, or about the situation which is examined by the plot? Do you admire cinematography and wish to see how the professionals have chosen to create their images?
Leonardo DiCaprio (right) stars in the movie, “J. Edgar.”
These are just a few of the possibilities, and that there are so many is a good indication why one individual may consider a film a work of genius, while another considers it a failed attempt at best.
The weather seems to have turned nasty on us, so it's a good time to find ourselves a comfortable seat and see what's on the silver screen.
Back in 2009, we wrote about the first of a new series of films about the famed British detective Sherlock Holmes. During the recent holiday season, the filmmakers have released the second film in the series, and while it seems to be earning about 30 percent less than the first film, it's still churning up enough cash to suggest that at least one more film will be made, or possibly many more. My source claims that the film has returned its initial investment and made a $41 million profit already, with weeks more of showtimes still remaining.
The latest Holmes flick bears the title ''Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows.'' Like the first film, it features Robert Downey Jr. as the title character and Jude Law as Dr. Watson, the detective's dependable Man Friday.
The film has two very real strengths: it's very entertaining, passing its two-hour length quickly, and it is quite beautiful to look at, featuring gorgeous cityscapes of Paris, and natural wonders, as filmed by Philippe Rousselot. The computer-generated scenes aren't as intrusive as they were in the first film.
That is enough for many people.
On the negative side, screenwriters Kieran Mulroney and Michele Mulroney certainly play fast and loose with the characters from the Arthur Conan Doyle stories, and with the pieces of plot which they have borrowed from Conan Doyle, especially from his story ''The Final Problem,'' from which the central core of the film's plot is taken.
The strength of the Holmes stories has always been similar to the plot of the television series ''Psych,'' which is to say that Holmes knows so much and observes tiny details so carefully that he seems to have almost magical knowledge which escapes everyone else.
Holmes is presented by director Guy Ritchie, for some reason, as seedy in appearance. He virtually always needs a shave, for example, yet when he puts on one of his many disguises, the uneven and partially grizzled scruff magically disappears from his face, only to re-appear when he doffs the costume. Obviously, the actor has buffed up, after his protracted problems with rehab situations, although the film seems determined to remove his shirt at every possible opportunity.
Ritchie is betting that you don't care much about the plot, as long as colorful things happen, there are a great many explosions, and the good guys are endangered, but ultimately win. In my case he's wrong.
The earlier Holmes film showed beautiful scenes of London, although it completely ignored the physical realities of the place. In one scene, for example, the characters run down a hallway in the cellars of the Parliament Building, and emerge from a doorway several stories up in the structure of Tower Bridge, which is at least a 20-minute drive from the parliamentary halls.
The second film features the beauties of Paris, plus the French countryside and the Swiss Alps. Yet again, many things about the film are improbable. Finding a secret door in the basement of a building outside of Paris, for example, they emerge from a tunnel within easy view of the Palais Garnier, better known as ''L'Opera.'' That is one long tunnel.
The music by Hans Zimmer is interesting, but the quality of the sound, at least in the showing which I attended, tended to blast out the music, which left one's ears numbed to hearing the dialogue which followed.
There are some fine supporting performances. Author and comedian Stephen Fry is misused as Mycroft Holmes, Sherlock's famed ''smarter brother,'' and for no good reason is asked to play one whole scene in the nude, while carefully placed tables and other furnishings conceal everything below his navel. I guess he wants to portray the entire Holmes family as unconventional, but honestly ...
Jared Harris gave a wonderfully controlled performance as the evil Dr. Moriarty, Holmes' classic nemesis. It must have been very tempting to make him a comic book villain. This calm, cold-blooded killer is much more frightening. Lovely Rachel McAdams, who was such a valuable asset in the earlier film, is wasted - removed very early from the second one.
I hope I've demonstrated the film's strengths and weaknesses. If you like to sit in the dark and let your films happen to you, you can have a great deal of fun at this one. If you like to apply your mind, you might as well save your energy. Every so often, the film stops time, and shows you the process Holmes' mind followed to discover something, so if you're not ready to change time and place in the wink of an eye, you'll be challenged.
One very positive thing which deserves mention - for me, the worst thing about the earlier film was the fact that every fight or accident was shown in slow motion, so the viewer can see how that punch has broken a cheek bone and how that falling wine barrel has dislocated a limb. In the second film, the violence is still in slow motion, but the intent seems to be to demonstrate the cleverness and effectiveness of the actions taken, rather than delight in the damage to the victim.
The film is from Village Roadshow Pictures, and it's playing in the public theaters, at the time of this writing.
Occasionally it's nice to take a ramble in the country, but most of the time, it's a good idea to have at least some idea of where you're going before you set out.
This is the problem with the November 2011 film ''J. Edgar,'' by director Clint Eastwood. The film is an alleged biography of J. Edgar Hoover, an American figure who has been both demonized as a power-hungry bigot willing to do anything, however cruel or immoral, to maintain his power, and as a conquering hero, the Superman without the cape who forced our country to face and deal with our enemies at a time when public opinion might happily have let it all slide.
Hoover was a person who dealt with secrets, all his life, which has led to much of the curiosity about him. He was known to have kept secret files on many people, including on the seven different presidents who appointed him to his job, which is believed by many to explain why politicians who announced their intention to replace him in his job as the head of the FBI all managed to reappoint him when the time came to act, until he died in office.
Hoover was frequently charged with deliberately creating false evidence against people and of planting false stories in the media to destroy the careers of public figures who criticized him or who led lives of which he disapproved, although they might not be illegal. On the other hand, the headquarters of the FBI in Washington, D.C., is named for him, and when he died of coronary-vascular disease in 1972, he was granted a state funeral and his body lay in the Rotunda of the Capitol.
Because of these contradictions, any film about the man is certain to be surrounded by controversy. It is well-known that Americans like our heroes to be squeaky clean and free from the slightest blemish, and we like our villains to be Satan's tools who do joyfully what they know is wrong and evil and have no redeeming qualities whatsoever. Real life rarely complies with that preference.
Another curiosity of writing for an American audience, we tend to be more focused on sexual matters than on more substantial issues. The fact that Hoover remained unmarried throughout his long life, that he vacationed and attended public functions with one of his agents, named Clyde Tolson, and that when he died, he willed everything he owned to Tolson, have led to claims that he was a covert homosexual, although such claims are vehemently denied by his surviving supporters.
Probably 85 to 90 percent of the write-ups which were published before the film was released focused principally on whether the film would portray the relationship in that light.
In fact, the film portrays Hoover as strongly inclined in that direction, but so completely repressed sexually that he never acted on the inclination. Even despite the pulled punch, Eastwood has been subjected to truly savage attacks by Hoover supporters, despite his established ultra-conservative credentials.
If the portrayal of Hoover's mother by Dame Judy Dench is in any way accurate, one could easily believe that he repressed all sexuality for his entire life.
Surely it is more important whether people's lives were destroyed by a power-mad plotter at the core of our own government, than just how friendly two adult men were.
Leonardo DiCaprio copes reasonably well with his rather vaguely portrayed character. His early scenes as a driven young government agent feel contrived, although his later scenes, once Hoover has achieved his great power, feel believable and strong. This, despite the fact that the film is poorly lighted and the old-age makeup on both DiCaprio and on actor Armie Hammer, who enacts Tolson, is not believable at all.
''J. Edgar'' had finished its run between when I saw it and when I was able to fit it into this column, so you'll have to catch a later showing or see it when it's released for home viewing, but I recommend it.
A figure such as Hoover is an important part of American history, and whether he deserves to be emulated or protected against is one which should be thought out by anyone who has the temerity to vote.
The film was made by Warner Brothers, and it was released in 2011.
Another filmed work - in this case, the DVD recording of a television miniseries - which falls afoul of our country's curious refusal to accept the humanity of our heroes is the three-disc recording of the 2008 series ''John Adams,'' a biography of our nation's first vice president who was later our second president.
The series was based upon the best-selling book by the same name, which was authored by historian David McCullough, who has delivered a great many morning lectures in the Chautauqua Amphitheater.
Although there are a number of inaccuracies in the series, I think in this case it overwhelmingly gives a more accurate description of conditions in our country in the 1770s, and of the characters of our Founding Fathers than the Hoover film gives of its subject.
Founding fathers, such as Adams and George Washington and Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, accomplished wonderful things, although each of them had his share of faults and shortcomings. Just because their pictures are on the money and in all those paintings doesn't mean that they shouldn't be truthfully studied.
Indeed, the fact that human beings produced our country is more miraculous than the silly idea that flawless paragons did it while tying their perfect, white cravates.
I'm pleased that the series received 23 Emmy nominations and won 13 of them, which is the most wins by any miniseries to date. When what is good is also popular, that's a healthy and wonderful circumstance.
The Internet is filled with claims of inaccuracy, but most of them are issues such as that Adams is shown delivering his inaugural address in the Senate chamber of Independence Hall, when he actually delivered it in the House of Representatives chamber. Which room he used isn't terribly important to me.
Perhaps the most genuinely disturbing error claimed is that in the first of the series' seven episodes, John Hancock and Samuel Adams are shown encouraging the Boston mob to tar and feather a British customs official, a barbaric custom which often resulted in the death of the victim. The challenger claims that the episode is not in McCullough's book, and in fact did not happen in Colonial Massachusetts.
One wonders why it was felt important to include, as it certainly mars the characters of Hancock and Samuel Adans.
The thing about Adams which is so noteworthy is that he was not good-looking, he was not extremely rich, and he did not have a gift for winning people over with his words. Indeed, at both the Continental Congresses and on his early diplomatic assignments to France and the Netherlands, he was unpopular and disliked - a seeming truth which is portrayed truthfully in the series.
Once decked in a requisite gray, powdered wig, actor Paul Giamatti looks very much like engravings and paintings of Adams. I thought he gave an impressive portrayal of a man who believes very strongly in his ideas, but who is almost crippled by his inability to win others over to agreeing with him, due to his lack of diplomacy and his stubborn insistence on his own beliefs, without compromise.
Cruelly, in the age of television he might never have had a career in politics at all.
Many of the letters which Adams wrote to, and received from, his wife Abigail have survived, and we know that the Adams' marriage was a healthy one, involving enormous respect and support for one another, and yet it bears the marks of quarrels, occasional suspicions, and other flaws, almost inevitable in marital relationships.
Laura Linney does a wonderful job of portraying Abigail as a loving, but sorely challenged wife, who frankly wasn't happy in the least, for example, that her husband had accepted an appointment which would require him leaving her alone on their farm while he traveled to the courts of European nations, famed for beautiful women and lax morals.
It's important that the complexity of understanding why her husband must accept this appointment and her fury that he would go and leave her alone with the hard work and complete responsibility be well portrayed, and Linney gives us a very human woman, not a whitewashed figurehead.
I'm curious why director Tom Hooper felt the need to cast so many of our founding fathers with British actors. I certainly can't fault Tom Wilkinson's portrayal of a schmoozing Benjamin Franklin, for example, nor with Stephen Dillane's elegant Thomas Jefferson, nor Rufus Sewell's stalwart Alexander Hamilton, but they're not roles with enormous dramatic challenges, and one can't help wonder if our nation's actors couldn't portray their own heroes.
Still, I enjoyed it very much, yet felt it accurately portrayed what I have come to understand of much of our own history. If you're interested, there are two DVD copies of the series available to be borrowed for free in the Chautauqua-Cattaraugus Library System, as well as 26 copies of McCullough's book and several copies of audio recordings of the book.