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This Week at the Movies

"Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows" is a standard Hollywood sequel, while "Carnage" is a funny, but minor, addition to Roman Polanski's body of work.

Sherlock Holmes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s paragon of logical reasoning, may be one of literature’s most intellectual detectives, but in Hollywood he’s just another action hero.

At least, this is the case in Guy Ritchie’s “Sherlock Holmes” franchise, in which Robert Downey Jr. portrays the legendary sleuth and costume swapper and Jude Law is Dr. John Watson.

Ritchie’s 2009 film was an amusing action thriller that was mostly fueled by the prodigious talents of Downey Jr.

Its sequel, “A Game of Shadows,” amps everything up a notch: excessive plotting, action sequences, slow motion shootouts, martial arts-styled fisticuffs and one-liners. It’s a case in which less could have been more.

The picture involves a fiendish plot that could – and I paraphrase – bring down the whole of western civilization. This diabolical scheme has been devised by Professor Moriarty (Jared Harris), a criminal mastermind who acts as the primary villain in Doyle’s series of novels.

Holmes once again enlists the help of Watson, who begrudgingly helps as he attempts to plan his wedding. Thrown into the mix is a Gypsy woman (Noomi Rapace, of the Swedish version of “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”), whose brother has become entangled with Moriarty’s nefarious plot.

“A Game of Shadows” has its charms. Downey Jr. is always a pleasure to watch and a slow motion action sequence during which a canon rips through the trees in a forest as the picture’s heroes run for their lives is over the top, but nicely choreographed.

But the picture is a standard Hollywood sequel that just skirts by on the personalities of its cast.

It’s also the performances that lift Roman Polanski’s “Carnage,” which is based on Yasmina Reza’s Broadway play, “God of Carnage.”

Polanski has gathered an A-list cast – Jodie Foster, Kate Winslet, John C. Reilly and Christoph Waltz – to play two bickering Brooklyn couples whose true colors show as they discuss a fight during which one of their kids struck the other in the face with a stick.

The story plays out in the style of a Luis Bunuel film as the couples attempt, but fail, to leave the apartment, where they gradually begin to air their bourgeois grievances.

Foster is Penelope, a self-congratulatory author who is writing a book on Darfur, and Reilly plays her husband, Michael, who first attempts to play peacemaker in the scenario, but later abandons that idea to unleash his id.

Winslet is the tightly wound, nerve-wracked Nancy, who is married to Waltz’s Alan Cowan, a smarmy attorney who spends much of the film jabbering away to clients on his cell phone.

At first, the couples pretend to play nice and even type out a joint statement in an effort to squash the beef between their pre-teen children. As the afternoon moves along, they devolve into childishness and outrageous behavior.

Polanski is no stranger to confined spaces. His 1965 classic “Repulsion” chronicles the psychological breakdown of a young woman living in her sister’s London apartment, while 1968’s “Rosemary’s Baby” is a Satanic tale set in a unit in The Dakota and 1976’s “The Tenant” tells the story of a Polish man becoming unhinged in a Parisian apartment building.

“Carnage,” which is primarily set in the living room of Penelope and Michael’s apartment, makes good use of its tight spaces. At times, however, it feels a little too stagey.

The film’s characters are portrayed more as archetypes than fully realized people, but the cast still manages to flesh them out.

Nonetheless, there are some acerbically funny moments, most notably Foster’s response to being accused of not having a sense of humor.

In the past decade, Polanski has made two films that rank among his best – “The Pianist” and “The Ghost Writer.”

“Carnage” is a minor film in the director’s oeuvre, but it’s a well-performed and enjoyably caustic social commentary.

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