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.
After being awakened by the echoing of scary sounds and discovering big footprints the gang--including Rabbit Tigger Piglet Eeyore and of course Pooh--decide to find and capture a Heffalump one of the most feared creatures in the Hundred Acre Wood. Little Roo is the only one not allowed to help in their endeavor because he is too small and too young to partake in such a dangerous expedition. But Roo is determined to convince everyone he is big enough to catch a Heffalump and sets out on his own. Luckily he is much more successful than the rest snaring a Heffalump named Lumpy. Roo soon finds out however that the scariest creature in the woods is not really scary at all but kind and gentle and just as scared as he or his friends ever were. Lumpy and Roo become fast friends. It is now up to Roo to get his friends and everyone else in the Hundred Acre Wood to throw away their fears and accept the Heffalumps as one of them.
All the actors portraying the Hundred Acre wood gang do a great job. They include Jim Cummings as friendly Winnie the Pooh and bounce-happy Tigger; Ken Sansom as the know-it-all Rabbit; Kath Soucie as Roo's loving mother Kanga; John Fiedler as little Piglet; Peter Cullen as the endearingly dreary Eeyore; Nikita Hopkins as the effervescent Roo. But it's the voice of Lumpy the Heffalump who steals the show. Eight-year-old Brit Kyle Stanger voices the soft-spoken but happy-go-lucky Lumpy melting your heart at every turn while two-time Oscar nominee Brenda Blethyn as his Mama Heffalump adds just the right touch.
Under the helm of veteran animation director Don MacKinnon and director Frank Nisson Pooh's Heffalump Movie uses the basic pen and ink animation but that suits the gang of the Hundred Acre Wood just fine. In classic Disney form music is also as much a part of the movie as anything else. Award-winning recording artist Carly Simon who also scored the delightful Piglet's Big Movie worked closely with DisneyToon Studios music department's Matt Walker and composer Joel McNeely to introduce several new songs that give the movie added spirit and bounce bringing the old and new characters together harmoniously.
It all begins in the quiet village of Hobbiton where Gandalf the wizard (Ian McKellen) comes to visit his old friend Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm) on his 111th birthday and talk about the ring Bilbo found many years ago. Gandalf discovers the ring is indeed the One Ring of Sauron-the Dark Lord who once ruled Middle-earth with a terrible hand and has now risen to reclaim the Ring and rule again. Bilbo gives the Ring to his nephew Frodo (Elijah Wood) who learns how it gives its possessor unspeakable power and why it has now put his village in danger. Suddenly Frodo is thrust into a treacherous mission. With his hobbit friends Merry (Dominic Monaghan) Pippin (Billy Boyd) and Samwise (Sean Astin) Frodo leaves his beloved home to travel to the Cracks of Doom and destroy the Ring before it falls into the wrong hands. The journey is fraught with dangers--from the evil Ringwraiths Sauron's henchmen to the powerful wizard Saruman (Christopher Lee) and his army of horrible mutants called the Uruk-Hai. Luckily the hobbits receive help along the way from Legolas (Orlando Bloom) an elf Gimli (John Rhys-Davies) a dwarf and the brave humans Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) and Boromir (Sean Bean) who all join the Fellowship of the Ring to protect Frodo and help save Middle-earth. But can they escape the lure of the Ring?
The all-star cast does an admirable job bringing the vivid characters of Tolkien's books to life. They've all managed to personalize their roles while dealing with the responsibility of portraying fictional icons. The film belongs to Wood who has proven he can carry a film (even at the tender age of 11...remember Radio Flyer?). His Frodo is so wrought with emotion and gets kicked around so much you feel like joining the Fellowship yourself just to help him out. Yet the hobbit's strong resolve is also quite evident. As Gandalf McKellen seems to personify the kindly wizard as if Tolkien had written the part for him and as the hyper-kinetic Bilbo Holm tries on big hairy feet and brings something new to his repertoire of characters. Other worthy performances include Bloom as the ultra-cool elf Legolas Astin as the stalwart Sam and Bean an underrated actor as the tortured Boromir who falls under the Ring's spell and sacrifices all to break from it. Some of the other characters didn't have the same amount of screen time but will more than likely be getting more play in the sequels including Mortensen's heroic Aragorn the man who would be king and his lady love the elven princess Arwen played by the beautiful Liv Tyler. It'll be interesting to see how the cast will handle their characters in the sequels to come.
Lord of the Rings looks nothing less than spectacular. What is even more impressive is the fact that director Peter Jackson decided to film all three of the books at one time no easy task by any stretch of the imagination. He uses all the technology and wizardry available to filmmakers today and thrusts the audience deep within the treacherous and exciting Middle-earth. From the diminutive hobbits to the Elven city Rivendell to the dark Mines of Moira it's all there. The amount of talent involved in creating the film--the conceptual artistry the production design the costumes--should be recognized come Oscar time. The pacing of the movie is excellent with enough down time and heartfelt if sometimes stilted speeches to counteract the incredible action sequences. You hardly notice the three hours passing by and it leaves you at the end wanting the quest to continue. The only one deterring fact is that the film really is for its die-hard fans. Certainly in the literary world Tolkien's story is the mother of all epic fantasies and Jackson has remained faithful to the material. In that the movie doesn't necessarily have the universal appeal of say a Harry Potter. Nonetheless Rings is a breathtaking piece of filmmaking.