2009’s Sherlock Holmes found unexpected synergy in the pairing of Robert Downey Jr.’s impish charm and Guy Ritchie’s macho kinetic visual style reinventing Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s master detective for a modern blockbuster audience. The follow-up Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows employs the same winning formula while adhering judiciously to the Law of Sequels and its more-more-more dictates: more action bigger set pieces higher stakes and a darker more convoluted plot. But more as so many past sequels have taught us is rarely better.
Game of Shadows marks the emergence of Doyle’s most famous villain James Moriarty (Jared Harris). Glimpsed only in darkness in the first film Moriarty takes center stage in the sequel as Holmes’s foremost criminal foil a genius-level university professor whose extracurricular interests range from horticulture to homicide. Holmes has deduced him to be at the center of a wave of terrorist bombings as well as the seemingly unrelated deaths of various titans of industry but can’t quite discern just what the professor’s endgame might be. Composed and calculating to a menacing degree Harris makes for a promising counterweight to Downey’s manic verbosity. But as in the first film Game of Shadows’ best moments are found in the comic interplay between Holmes and his reluctant sidekick Dr. Watson (Jude Law) who is plucked from his honeymoon to accompany the detective on a trans-continental trip in search of clues to Moriarty’s machinations.
And it’s very much a boys-only trip. The female leads from the first film Rachel McAdams and Kelly Reilly are tossed aside – literally in the case of the latter – in Game of Shadows while the cast’s highest-profile new addition Swedish star Noomi Rapace (best known as the original non-emaciated Lisbeth Salander) is a curious non-factor in the role of a Gypsy (or Roma if you prefer) fortune-teller. The film maintains only the slimmest pretense of a romantic subplot between her and Downey. Rapace looking perhaps a bit lost in her first English-speaking role can’t hope to eclipse the Holmes-Watson traveling road show.
Ritchie’s technique with its signature blend of rapid cutting and slow-mo and super-high frame-rates – perfect for admiring the odd apple tossed in the air or a piece of bark shot off a tree – is once again evident in the film’s awe-inspiring (and occasionally coherence-defying) set pieces the most memorable of which is set in a munitions factory with Watson wielding a gatling gun like an early T-600 prototype. But some of the novelty of the stylistic juxtaposition has faded since the first film. Ritchie tries to compensate by ramping up the firepower to limited effect. Absent amid the hail of mortar blasts and automatic weapons fire is any real sense of intrigue or suspense which proves to be Game of Shadows’ most vexing mystery.
Built from comic book auteur Frank Miller’s (Sin City) rock solid foundations 300 is based on his vision on the 1962 film The 300 Spartans filtered through the same tough-as-nails pulp sensibility that populates most of his comics work. Leaving such leaden wannabe sword-and-sandal epics like Troy and Alexander in the historical dust 300 reworks the real-life legendary tale of the Battle of Thermopylae in which a battalion of 300 elite Spartan soldiers heroically hold the line to protect ancient Greece from the invading Persian hordes. The story focuses on the Spartan King Leonidas (Gerard Butler) who must not only lead his small cadre of troops--each one honored since childhood into a razor-sharp battle-relishing warrior—into a battle they are unlikely to survive but he must also fight for the fate of Greece and its democratic ideals. As the bizarre seemingly endless marauding legions of the tyrant Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) descend upon the Hot Gates—a narrow passageway into Greece that Leonidas’ miniscule band can most ably defend—the soldiers take up arms without the usual post-modern anti-war hand-wringing that most war epics indulge in. These soldiers are both bred for battle and fighting a good fight and the film focuses squarely on the highly charged action. Meanwhile in a new plotline created specifically for the movie his equally noble and faithful queen Gorgo (Lena Headey) takes up arms in a more symbolic way as she also tries to keep democracy alive by taking on the political warlords of Sparta to secure relief for her husband’s troops. Butler has become a familiar and welcome on-screen presence in such films as The Phantom of the Opera and Reign of Fire but there has been little on his mainstream movie resume to suggest the kind of bravura fire he brings to the role of Leonidas. This is the stuff of an actor announcing himself to the audience in a major way akin to Daniel Craig’s star-making turn as James Bond. In a big bold performance that could have gone awry in any number of ways Butler plays even the highest pitched notes like a concerto perfectly capturing the king’s bravado bombast cunning compassion and passion each step of the way. Headey is his ideal match imbuing the queen with more steel and nobility in a handful of scenes than most actresses can summon to carry entire films. Fans of Lost and Brazilian cinema will be hard-pressed to even recognize Santoro whose earnest pretty handsomeness is radically transformed into Xerxes’ exotic borderline freakish form personifying a terrifying yet seductive force of corruption and evil that spreads like a cancer across the earth. And don’t forget to add in the most impressive array of rock-hard abs on cinematic display since well ever (think Brad Pitt in Troy times 300). Even bolstered by canny casting choices and their washboard stomachs helmer Zack Snyder (Dawn of the Dead) is the true undisputable star of 300 establishing himself firmly as a director whose work demands to be watched. With a kinetic sensibility that’s akin to Quentin Tarantino and John Woo and using CGI technology to its utmost effects both subtle and dynamic Snyder creates a compelling fully formed world that the audience is eager to explore. Snyder doesn’t literally match Miller’s signature artwork as meticulously as director Robert Rodriguez did with Sin City. Instead Snyder captures Miller’s essence be it raw brutality majestic size and scope the exotic and otherworldly carnal physicality or hideous deformity--even seemingly antiquated and potentially off-putting techniques like the repeated use of slow-motion are put to fresh effect making every blow and cut seem crucial. Yet even in the visual glorification of some of the most bloody and violent conflicts ever put to film Snyder infuses the tale—which ultimately is one big glorious testosterone-soaked fight sequence—with the sense of honor and sacrifice which characterizes the most noble of war efforts. Yes war can be hell but this is a case where some like it hot.
Idi Amin was the ruthless dictator of the African nation of Uganda throughout much of the 1970s. He was ultimately blamed for thousands upon thousands of deaths (some estimates place the death toll in the hundreds of thousands) during his tenure. The Last King of Scotland is a fictionalized version of Amin’s (Forest Whitaker) reign of terror. Giddy after graduating from med school in Scotland Nicholas Garrigan (James McAvoy) randomly picks Uganda to be his first post-college destination. When he gets there the locals are abuzz after the new leader has been sworn in and vows to right all that is wrong with the country. After a chance encounter with Amin Garrigan bears witness to his dichotomous personalities as the ruler goes from threatening to charming on a whim. Amin is so taken with the young doctor--and vice versa--that he invites Garrigan to become his personal physician. A doctor-patient relationship leads to close friendship and before long Garrigan is the very center of the dictator’s inner circle. And not long thereafter he learns that there is no worse place to be. For over 20 years now we’ve all bore witness to Whitaker’s mastery of acting. His choices have been eclectic and his performances consistently great but it’s always been a case of “And oh Forest Whitaker’s great too.” Until now. Whitaker makes what can only be described as an earthquake of an entrance. It’s clear in the movie when Amin will first appear and yet the actor still manages to catch us off-guard. Amin’s manic personalities are child’s play for Whitaker but he never has fun with it which is where other actors might have gone overboard. He is now leading the race for the Best Actor Oscar too. Not that the supporting players are too shabby though. McAvoy's (The Chronicles of Narnia) Garrigan is actually the heart of the story allowing for more screen time than Whitaker and the Scotsman soaks up every second. He sticks out like a sore thumb in the film but not only because he’s from the opposite side of the earth; it’s because McAvoy the actor makes sure to react differently to everything. In addition former X-File-r Gillian Anderson turns in a solid if short apperance--and you’ll be surprised how amazingly hot she is! Kerry Washington (Mr. and Mrs. Smith) as one of Amin’s countless neglected ex-wives is superb as well.
The contrast between Last King's first and second half is as night-and-day as Amin's personalities. In the first half director Kevin MacDonald (Touching the Void) allows the story to simmer to the point of perfection; in the second half he gets sloppy as though in a rush to finish a different movie than the one he started. The ending also a mix of truth and fable (plucked from the highly acclaimed book by Giles Foden) quickly spirals towards its conclusion which is tough to watch for very different reasons. But prior to that--even at some points in the uneven second half--MacDonald paints a beautiful monster out of Amin. Maybe more importantly he paints a beautiful picture of African ambiance an indirect thank you to the Ugandan people that allowed unprecedented access to their country for the sake of Last King. Even with MacDonald's occasional blunders it's hard to deny the power of his film.