Mr Holmes

Director: Bill Condon (2015)

The game is afoot for the last time in this elegiac postscript to the magisterial career of retired detective Sherlock Holmes.

As the Baker Street sleuth, Ian McKellen delivers a beautifully honest performance. It’s full of humour and sadness without ever lurching into sentiment or self-pity.

We see Holmes at two points in his life: first as a semi-invalid retiree who is all too aware of his fast diminishing mental faculties. Secondly as the arrogant Victorian investigator at the height of his fame and intellectual power.

Beginning in 1947, the 93 year old former detective spends his time beekeeping on the Sussex coast

He has returned from a trip to Japan where he was the guest of Matsuda Umezaki (Hiroyuki Sanada) on a mission to secure a herb called Prickly Ash.

Holmes hopes to use it as a remedy to halt the decline of his once brilliant mind, an idea looked upon with scorn by housekeeper Mrs. Munro (Laura Linney).

Together with her 10 year old son Roger (Milo Parker) the three form a surrogate family whose combustible chemistry threatens the uneasy equilibrium of their existence.

We expect and receive great performances from the McKellen and Linney but young Parker is also at times exceptional.

In order to understand his present a frustrated Holmes is trying to remember the details of his last case.

He knows it’s unsatisfactory conclusion lead to his retirement but he can’t fathom why.

Several mysteries run in parallel as through flashback we see the Case of the Grey Glove which occurred 30 years earlier.

Holmes is commissioned by Thomas Kelmot (Patrick Kennedy) to investigate the behaviour of his grief-stricken wife Ann (Hattie Morahan).

With a story involving vials of poison, exotic musical instruments and forged cheques, Holmes is lead to the mysterious music teacher Madame Schirmer, played by a show-stopping Frances de la Tour.

Discussions of the afterlife are filtered through his failing memory, adding to a layering of fictions.

There are frequent references to the gap between the image of Holmes and his reality. He is not the infallible scientist of public and private perception.

He struggles to engage his emotions or accept leaning on his lifelong crutch of logic will not protect him from regret, loneliness, or guilt.

We see Holmes reading Dr Watson’s novelisations of their adventures and in the cinema watching his fictionalised life portrayed by actors. (Nicholas Rowe is credited as ‘Matinee Sherlock’.)

Presenting versions of Holmes draws the sting of familiarity from previous incarnations and makes McKellen’s Holmes all the more real, boosting the emotional power of the gripping final scenes.

Mr Holmes is adapted from Mitch Cullin’s 2005 book ‘A Slight Trick of the Mind‘ with a screenplay by playwright Jeffrey Hatcher.

The dignified score by Carter Burwell strikes a sombre tone from the off is combined with the graceful cinematography by Tobias A. Schliessler.

They create a richly sympathetic and melancholy tone similar to the tone of the excellent The Madness of King George (1994).

From Basil Rathbone to Roger Moore and Robert Downey JnrArthur Conan Doyle‘s enigmatic detective has been portrayed by more than 70 different actors in over 200 films.

He’s also been portrayed on radio, on stage and of course extremely successfully in the slick TV series starring Benedict Cumberbatch.

This intelligent and moving version is produced with admirable care and is always true to the spirit of Conan Doyle‘s brilliant novels.

It doesn’t take Sherlock Holmes to deduce this will be an award-winning movie.

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies

Director: Peter jackson (2014)

Fighting on too many fronts is never a good idea and this epic fantasy trilogy comes to an underwhelming close.

Scale is epic and design is stunning and performances suitably large and loud but sadly the massive battles and computer effects are better than the storytelling of the human (elf, hobbit or dwarf) dramas.

This should be a straightforward tale of greed set against the backdrop of a brutal battle. But instead it becomes confused and stuck in a quagmire of subplots as too many minor characters fight for screen time.

Fili or possibly Kili aside, the company of dwarves are lost in the morass while cowardly Alfrid lickspittle (Ryan Gage) is crow-barred in to offer comic relief and clutter the over-stuffed cast list.

Hobbit Bilbo (Martin Freeman) is virtually a spectator and Gandalf (Ian McKellen) does little better. This is a shame as Freeman brings rare moments of contemplative quiet among what is otherwise a ferocious and overextended dust up.

Elf Legolas (Orlando Bloom) is levered in to silly effect and the dwarf/elf romance between Fili or possibly Kili and Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) is developed and is even more unconvincing than it sounds.

Five Armies begins where the last film, The Desolation of Smaug, ended, with a brilliantly exciting attack by the dragon Smaug on Laketown.

He is stopped by heroic bowman Bard (Luke Evans) and with Smaug’s death, dwarf Thorin (Richard Armitage) becomes king of Erebor but his obsession with gold is turning him insane.

Elf lord Thranduil (Lee Pace), riding a giant moose and heading his golden army, joins up with Bard’s men to  challenge Thorin.

But they all unite when legions of orcs arrive and the skull-splitting slaughter begins. Arrows fly, swords crash and heads roll as armoured trolls, goats, pigs, eagles and a free-falling bear drop into the action.

The action and design are spectacular and the film dovetails nicely  into the first Lord of the Rings movie.

By trying to hit too many targets, the previously sure-sighted director Peter Jackson misses the mark.

☆☆

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

Director: Peter jackson (2013)

This second part of The Hobbit trilogy is a brilliant combination of solid gold action and spellbinding fun.

It looks glorious – from the magnificent and enormous mountain kingdom to the tiniest gold coin. The furnaces and forges are massive, built on a Herculean scale worthy of my native Teesside. The music is thunderously epic, scenery stunning and the action fantastic.

On top of all this there are dark and scary elements. Paranoia, corruption and madness are never far from the surface in the script.

There are big changes to Tolkien’s book in the confrontation between Bilbo and Smaug, plus there is an entirely new character called Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly).

She’s a kick-ass elven warrior who supplies some welcome female warmth among the bushy-browed band of brothers though her story arc may be an invention too far Jackson.

Underpinning this amazing adventure are the captivating characters of Gandalf the wizard, Bilbo the hobbit and dwarf chief Thorin, portrayed with charm and talent by Ian McKellen, Martin Freeman and Richard Armitage.

The horde of squabbling dwarves are played by the same actors as in the previous film and Orlando Bloom returns as the elvish prince Legolas.

Gandalf goes off to investigate the mysterious Necromancer, meanwhile Thorin continues to lead his dwarves on their quest to rightfully reclaim their Lonely Mountain kingdom from Smaug the dragon.

The superbly animated fire-breathing monster, who rests on a hill of gold, is voiced with chilling reptilian menace by Freeman’s Sherlock co-star Benedict Cumberbatch.

In one of 2013’s best action sequences the heroes shoot down a river in barrels while being chased by both elves and orcs.

Bilbo and the dozen dwarves are attacked by giant spiders, imprisoned by elves and captured by men yet the ferociously paced Hobbit is still packed with humour.

They use swords, arrows, knives and axes to fend off orcs, wolves and giant bears while lurking at the end of their quest, a ferocious fire-breathing dragon.

With much enthusiastic slaying, smiting and beheading, our heroes, ride, run and fight their way through streets, forest and caverns, from the diseased and dangerous Mirkwood forest to the ramshackle Laketown and into The Lonely Mountain itself where it ends in a flash – of gold and fire.

X-Men: Days of Future Past

Director: Bryan Singer (2014)

Hugh Jackman sharpens his claws for the seventh time as superhero Wolverine in this action-packed adventure with added time-travel thrills.

The film has exciting set-pieces, a terrific cast, some good jokes and an entertaining new angle on the Kennedy assassination of November 1963.

Yet the script struggles to find time for a plot amid the cacophony of characters – so the special effects have to do the dramatic heavy lifting.

The story begins with mutants under attack by super-powered robots called the sentinels.

Mutant leaders Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart) and Magneto (Ian McKellen) send the mind of Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) back to 1973 to inhabit his younger self’s body.

He has to find the young Xavier (James McAvoy) and convince him to help recruit Magneto (Michael Fassbender).

Magneto is jailed inside the Pentagon so they recruit a lightning fast mutant called Quicksilver (Evan Peters) to break him out.

This leads to a brilliant action comedy sequence set to the wonderful music of the late singer-songwriter Jim Croce whose music was also used in Tarantino’s bloody opus Django Unchained (2012).

Next the mutants have to stop the shapeshifting Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) from carrying out a revenge killing of the scientist Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage).

She decides to take direct action not realising his death could lead to the annihilation of the mutants by giving the the US government the excuse they’re looking for.

Fassbender and McEvoy have great fun in costume but neither has to squeeze himself into an unforgiving blue leotard like Lawrence.

It’s not uncanny of the film-makers to put the world’s most popular actress centre story. But even she can’t steal the show from the prowling, growling Jackman.

☆☆