Video Verdict: ‘Sherlock Holmes – A Game of Shadows,’ ‘Ghost Rider – Spirit of Vengeance,’ ‘In Darkness’

Robert Downey Jr. plays the title character in “Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows.”

Two sequels lead this week’s crop of home video releases. One is the follow-up to a Nicolas Cage superhero film; the other is Robert Downey Jr.’s latest take on Sherlock Holmes.

Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows

2½ stars (out of four)
Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, and some drug material
Warner Brothers
Available on: DVD, Blu-ray and digital download

When director Guy Ritchie (“Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels,” “Snatch.”) and actor Robert Downey Jr. updated the Sherlock Holmes mythos in 2009, they delivered an appealing blend of action, drama, mystery and suspense. Sadly, their return to the well is less appealing.

That’s not to say “Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows” is a disaster. Downey Jr. is still outstanding in the title role, most notably because he gives the master detective a sense of brutishness that isn’t typically seen in the character. Downey Jr.’s Sherlock not only has brilliant powers of deduction, he’s able to put them to work in combat situations. Ritchie again succeeds in explaining the computer-like nature of Holmes’ mind by delivering visuals of the what-if scenarios playing in his head.

As effective as these things are, “Game of Shadows” suffers from a subpar plot that never generates much suspense. A good mystery requires surprises, and Ritchie’s first “Holmes” film had them. “Game of Shadows” is less interesting because it’s clear from the outset that Holmes is after Professor James Moriarty (Jared Harris), a ruthless criminal so intelligent that he has avoided suspicion despite possessing a high public profile.

Moriarty has been masterminding bombings in European locales with the goal of starting a world war. The only mystery is why he’s doing this and how Holmes and his companion Dr. Watson (Jude Law) will prove he’s the culprit.

Like many sequels, “Game of Shadows” spends a lot of time reworking themes that fans are already familiar with. For instance, Holmes and Watson bicker incessantly, most notably because Holmes is upset that Watson wants to give up sleuthing to spend more time with his wife (Kelly Reilly). There’s also a spotlight on Holmes’ oddball behavior, including a tendency to test toxins on Watson’s dog. It’s good when a story remains true to its characters, but these bits seem overdone since they were established in the original movie. They also present a drag on pacing and bring the film in at an overlong 129 minutes.

Fortunately, the acting is strong, and Downey Jr. and Law possess a keen chemistry that makes their scenes memorable. They also get strong supporting work from Harris, Noomi Rapace, Rachel McAdams and Stephen Fry, the latter three playing key supporting roles.

DVD and Blu-ray extras include several making-of featurettes.

In Darkness

4 stars
Rated R for violence, disturbing images, sexuality, nudity and language
Sony
Available on: DVD and Blu-ray

The Holocaust was such a horrific event in human history that artistic meditations are bountiful, yet there always seems to be room for another. The latest movie to tackle the subject is “In Darkness,” a harrowing foreign drama based on the real-life story of Leopold Socha (Robert Wieckiewicz), a Polish sanitation worker who helped Jews avoid extermination by hiding them in the sewers of Lvov.

The film covers typical Holocaust territory, showing that humans can persevere even when faced with unimaginable horrors. As important as that theme is, it’s not what makes “In Darkness” great. Other fine movies, including “Schindler’s List,” “Life Is Beautiful” and “The Pianist,” tread similar ground, so one can only go so far along that path.

Where “In Darkness” shines is in its portrayal of Socha. Although the man acts heroically, director Agnieszka Holland does not present him as a traditional hero. Rather, he is a complex individual who undergoes a remarkable change during the course of the film.

At first, Socha is depicted as an opportunist who is willing to hide the Jews mainly because one of them, Ignacy Chiger (Herbert Knaup), is able to pay. As the movie progresses, however, viewers see that his interactions with the fugitives result in character growth. That, along with a wonderful performance by Wieckiewicz, makes “In Darkness” not only a Holocaust reminder, but a meditation on how important it is for human beings to have empathy for one another. Viewed from that standpoint, the lessons it contains seem both universal and timeless.

The movie was one of five to receive a nomination for best foreign language film during the 2012 Academy Awards, and it received a good deal of critical acclaim while playing theaters. It deserves all that attention and more. “In Darkness” is presented in Polish, German, Ukrainian and Yiddish with English subtitles.

DVD and Blu-ray extras include a feature centered on Holland and another in which Holland talks with real-life survivor Krystyna Chiger.

Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance

1 star
Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of action and violence, some disturbing images, and language
Sony
Available on: DVD, Blu-ray and Blu-ray 3D

Marvel Comics has produced some terrific superhero films over the years, but “Ghost Rider” isn’t one of them. The 2007 movie was so bad, in fact, that producers and star Nicolas Cage would have done well to pretend it didn’t happen. Instead, they delivered a sequel that – unsurprisingly – is every bit as bad as the original.

This time, cursed former stuntman Johnny Blaze (Cage) is talked into protecting a young boy and his mother from the powers of darkness. To do this, he must struggle with The Rider, a demon-like being that possesses his body, turning him into a flaming skeleton with supernatural powers and a penchant for punishing “sinners.”

Although Cage is back in the title role, “Spirit of Vengeance” received new blood in the form of directors Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor (“Crank,” “Crank: High Voltage”). One imagines they were asked to make the franchise better, but if anything, they made it worse. Despite a budget that, reportedly, came in at around $75 million, “Spirit of Vengeance” feels like a B-movie.

The script is dull, the dialogue is cheesy and the characters are not inspiring. Any one of these things might result in a poor film. Lumped together, they are disastrous.

Bonus materials on the DVD release are limited to deleted scenes. The Blu-ray and Blu-ray 3D releases include a few more extras, most notably a video commentary by Neveldine and Taylor.

ALSO OUT THIS WEEK

“Good Deeds”: The latest movie from writer-director-actor Tyler Perry. The plot centers on a wealthy businessman (Perry) whose routine is shaken up when he gets to know one of the cleaning women working for his company (Thandie Newton).

“Too Big to Fail”: Director Curtis Hanson’s (“8 Mile,” “L.A. Confidential”) dramatization of the events leading up to America’s 2008 financial meltdown. The film originally aired on HBO, and it stars James Woods, William Hurt, Topher Grace and Paul Giamatti.

“Entourage” – The Complete Eighth Season: Final eight episodes of the popular HBO dramedy about Hollywood actor Vincent Chase (Adrian Grenier) and his posse of pals. Kevin Connolly, Kevin Dillon, Jerry Ferrara and Jeremy Piven also star.

“Scandal” – The Complete First Season: First seven episodes of the ABC political thriller about Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington), a crisis manager who makes a living massaging the public images of America’s political elite. Henry Ian Cusick, Columbus Short, Guillermo Diaz, Darby Stanchfield, Tony Goldwyn and Jeff Perry also star.

“Episodes” – The First Season: Showtime sitcom about British TV producers who think they’ve hit the big time when they are invited to remake their popular European series for American audiences. Alas, the deal comes with more than they bargained for. Matt LeBlanc, Stephen Mangan and Tamsin Greig star.

Criterion Collection classics: Serious movie collectors know that the Criterion Collection regularly cranks out the definitive video releases of some of the most memorable movies of all time. This week, they’re bringing us new digital restorations of three acclaimed films: “The Gold Rush” (1925), “Harold and Maude” (1971) and “Shallow Grave” (1994). “Gold Rush” stars Charlie Chaplin as a prospector who discovers more than gold in his quest for wealth. “Harold and Maude” tells of the unlikely relationship between a youthful man obsessed with death (Bud Cort) and a free-spirited senior. “Shallow Grave” is director Danny Boyle’s (“Slumdog Millionaire”) first film, and it focuses on three friends whose roommate dies leaving a suitcase full of cash.

“Missing” – The Complete First Season: ABC has officially cancelled this short-lived drama, but fans can relive it with this set. Ashley Judd stars as a former CIA agent searching for her disappeared son.

“Miss Minoes”: English dub of the 2001 Dutch film about a cat that transforms into a young woman and becomes friends with an up-and-coming journalist.

– Forrest Hartman is an independent film critic whose byline has appeared in some of the nation’s largest publications. For more of his work visit http://www.ForrestHartman.com. E-mail him at forrest@forresthartman.com.

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4 Comments

Filed under Video Verdict

4 responses to “Video Verdict: ‘Sherlock Holmes – A Game of Shadows,’ ‘Ghost Rider – Spirit of Vengeance,’ ‘In Darkness’

  1. I really loved the Sherlock Holmes sequel. I’d even go so far as to say that some parts of the film were better than the first.

    Like

  2. Glad you liked it jeffro. Obviously, there can never be complete agreement on a film and — for what it’s worth — I think you’re with the majority. The movie scored relatively high on RottenTomatoes. The plotting just didn’t click for me. Although, as mentioned, I really like Robert Downey Jr.’s reading of the character.

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