On film: A legendary detective, and legendary cartoons

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Ian McKellen stars as Sherlock Holmes in “Mr. Holmes.” — Photograph: BBC Films/Allstar Pi

Sherlock Holmes has been entertaining detective story enthusiasts since the first of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s novels about the legendary figure was published in 1887. The latest cinematic entry, “Mr. Holmes,” plays this weekend at the Martha’s Vineyard Film Center. “Very Semi-Serious,” a documentary about the New Yorker’s celebrated cartoons, plays Friday, July 24, at the Martha’s Vineyard Performing Arts Center in Oak Bluffs as part of the Martha’s Vineyard Film Festival.

In “Mr. Holmes,” the year is 1947, and Sherlock, played by Ian McKellen, has reached his 90s. Now retired, he lives in the Sussex countryside, cared for by a crusty housekeeper, Mrs. Munro (Laura Linney), and her son Roger (Milo Parker). Roger, an avid fan of the master detective, helps him care for his bees, which are mysteriously dying off. Sherlock’s memory has deteriorated, and he obsesses about his final case, and the visit he has just made to Japan — a devastated Hiroshima in particular — at the end of World War II.

With Roger as our surrogate, we learn that Sherlock never wore a deerstalker hat or smoked a pipe. Those were literary inventions of his colleague Dr. Watson. We are seeing Holmes not so much as the fabled detective but as a solitary, lonely figure struggling with end-of-life decline. The final case from many years ago that haunts Holmes concerns a woman (Hattie Morahan) who plays the glass harmonica and who, Holmes thinks, is planning to kill her husband. Young Roger finds a lady’s glove in Holmes’ room that helps the detective begin to piece together what he poignantly got wrong about that final case.

In the meantime, through more flashbacks, we see Holmes travel to Japan in search of prickly ash, a tonic he hopes will restore his memory and vigor. There he meets with botanist Masuo Umesaki (Zak Shukor), who discovers the tree in the bombed-out wasteland that Hiroshima has become. Umesaki questions Holmes about Umesaki’s father, who abandoned the botanist’s family and whom the detective knew.

Director Condon challenges the audience to understand the potential and symbolic connections among these plotlines. “Mr. Holmes” is not an easy, feel-good film about the popular detective, but its complexities, aided by Mr. McKellen’s superbly nuanced performance, prove a satisfying addition to the legend surrounding Sherlock Holmes.

The New Yorker and its cartoons

In her documentary, “Very Semi-Serious,” director Leah Wolchok explores, with enjoyable thoroughness, the history and place of cartoons in the nation’s foremost literary magazine, the New Yorker. She ties together the film by following the career of cartoon editor Bob Mankoff. “Imagine yourself on another planet,” Mr. Mankoff says to explain the perspective a cartoonist takes. “It is just having fun.”

Every Tuesday cartoonists, hoping to sell their work to the magazine, show up at Mankoff’s office. The editor sorts through some 1,000 entries to select the 15 that will end up being published. Editor David Remnick has the final say, and assistant editor Kelly Stout, considering the cartoonists’ gender, diversity, and age, picks the mix for the week.

The audience meets many of the cartoonists whose work appears in the New Yorker, including veteran Mort Gerberg, and Roz Chast, one of the few and first women (she now has published 1,231 cartoons), and hears about celebrated figures like Charles Addams and Peter Arno. Viewers learn about the long-gone golden age of cartoons, when many different magazines published cartoons. Particularly interesting is to learn that cartoons have been an important component of the New Yorker since its beginnings.

“They’re how I process what’s happening to me,” explains one cartoonist. Mr. Mankoff suggests, “What it wants is a grain of truth,” and adds, “Being funny is like being awake. You’re in the world and you’re out of it.”

“Mr. Holmes,” Friday, July 24, Saturday, July 25, and Tuesday, July 28, 7:30 pm. Martha’s Vineyard Film Center, Tisbury Marketplace, Vineyard Haven. For tickets and information, see mvfilmsociety.com.

“Very Semi-Serious,” special Martha’s Vineyard Film Festival screening on Friday, July 24, 7:30 pm, Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School Performing Arts Center, Edgartown–Vineyard Haven Road, Oak Bluffs. For tickets and information, see tmvff.org.