Archive for December, 2009

Holmes goes action hero in Ritchie’s energized political thriller

Saturday, December 26th, 2009
Jude Law, Robert Downey Jr. and Rachel McAdams in "Sherlock Holmes" Dr. Watson (Jude Law), left, Sherlock (Robert Downey Jr.) and Irene (Rachel McAdams) contemplate their next move in “Sherlock Holmes,” based on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s hero.

How much you will appreciate Guy Ritchie’s reinterpretation of famous London detective Sherlock Holmes depends entirely on how willing you are to accept Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s eccentric sleuth as a genetic cross between Indiana Jones, Jackie Chan and Tyler Durden from “Fight Club.”

Gone are the familiar deerstalker cap and ornate, deep-bowl pipe traditionally linked to the great detective, especially as portrayed by the immortal Basil Rathbone during a series of classic black-and-white movies from the late 1930s and ’40s.

Robert Downey Jr.’s “Sherlock Holmes” is a buffed and manly Holmes, an able and willing participant in both fisticuffs and sexual hanky-panky, while co-star Jude Law reinvents Nigel Bruce’s lovably bumbling Dr. Watson as a handsome gentleman physician who’s as handy with a Derringer as he is with a stethoscope.

This being a movie by Guy Ritchie – the British director who gave us the crime thrillers “Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels” and “Snatch” plus the abysmal Madonna vehicle “Swept Away” – this engaging work of pop cinema thrives more on attitude and action than on plot and character.

In fact, I’m not even sure I understood half of what was going on between the chases, punches and double entendres, but I took solace in the knowledge that all the “clues” to the mystery openly paraded before us would be explained and neatly tied up by Holmes before the closing credits. (Read more…)

Baldwin, Streep steam up ‘It’s Complicated’

Saturday, December 26th, 2009
Jake (Alec Baldwin) rediscovers romance with his ex-wife Jane (Meryl Streep) in the Nancy Meyer comedy “It’s Complicated.”

If I didn’t know better, I’d suspect that AARP underwrote “It’s Complicated” because of its positive depictions of fiftysomethings having healthy libidos and a take-charge view of life.

The sex scenes between Alec Baldwin and Meryl Streep are so fun and hot that at any moment you half-way expect one of them to blurt out Meg Ryan’s deli speech in “When Harry Met Sally” – “Yes! Yes! Yesssssssssssss!”

Jane Adler (Streep) is single after divorcing Jake (Baldwin) 10 years earlier. Jake, now 58, has married Agnes (Lake Bell), the much younger, trimmer hottie Jake met while stepping out on his wife.

The graduation of their son Luke (Hunter Parrish) brings the ex-spouses to New York, where a chance encounter at the bar mixed with a lot of wine and conversation puts them into several compromising positions.

Jane’s gaggle of gossiping girlfriends (among them Mary Kay Place and Rita Wilson) can’t believe Jane’s become the other woman to the wife who used to be the other woman!

“It’s Complicated” comes from director/writer Nancy Meyers, who has a knack for popular romantic comedies oozing with calculated cuteness and easy affections. She creates several funny vignettes in which Jake and Jane have way too much fun for people their ages.

But Meyers gives all the good stuff to her leads, and lets everyone else in the movie starve for anything beyond functional dialogue. (Read more…)

‘Alvin’ sequel doesn’t have many laughs

Saturday, December 26th, 2009
Simon, Alvin and Theodore in "Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel" Simon, Alvin and Theodore meet some flashy, fellow furry students in “Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel.”

It amazes me how parents will shield young children from movies containing objectionable elements such as sex and violence, but cheerfully escort them to see simple-minded movies so soulless and unintelligently constructed that they qualify as child pandering.

And that was the hit comedy “Alvin and the Chipmunks” two years ago.

Now, 20th Century Fox has unleashed “Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel,” a follow-up whose singular bit of cleverness resides in its title.

Actor Jason Lee reportedly didn’t have enough time to star in this movie as chipmunk wrangler Dave Seville, so a convenient stage accident puts him in traction at a French hospital for the duration of this insufferable story. (I’m guessing Lee read the script and begged to be let out of making this film, but had to contractually appear in it.)

The adorable chipmunks – Alvin (Justin Long), Simon (Matthew Gray Gubler) and Theodore (Jesse McCartney) – go back home where Dave’s doofus nephew Toby (a comically flatlined Zachary Levi) gets them off to high school every morning.

At school, the jocks make Alvin their mascot because he has great hands (paws?) for catching balls. Seduced by popularity, Alvin leaves Simon and Theodore behind. But that’s not even the main plot. (Read more…)

‘Nine’ loses points for thin story, lyrics

Saturday, December 26th, 2009
Daniel Day-Lewis in "Nine" Daniel Day-Lewis pulls out all the stops as an Italian movie director dealing with writer’s block in the musical “Nine.”

Rob Marshall’s “Nine” is the kind of movie musical to be appreciated for its showstopper production numbers, its impressive roster of stars who can almost sing and dance superbly, and its racy and raw sexuality barely constrained by a PG-13 rating.

But its inaccessible main character, uninsightful lyrics and thin story?

Closer to a “Five.”

Even with Fergie’s heaving chest undulating to the beat of “Be Italian,” “Nine” has a tough time spinning a gripping story around something as nebulous as writer’s block.

Granted, this writer is Italy’s supreme filmmaker, Guido Contini, played by British actor Daniel Day-Lewis. After two massive flops during the 1960s, he’s about to shoot his next, eagerly anticipated motion picture.

But he has no script. No ideas, either.

The international press hounds him with stupid questions.

His producer freaks out as the clock ticks down to the start of shooting.

So, the chain-smoking Guido sits down in the darkness of the huge soundstage at Rome’s Cinecitta Film Studios and unbridles his imagination, and like Marshall’s Oscar-winning best picture musical “Chicago,” his memories come to life in music and spectacle, featuring the women in his life. (Read more…)

Witless protection: Moronic ‘Morgans’ shoots down all laughs

Friday, December 18th, 2009
Sarah Jessica Parker and Hugh Grant in "Did You Hear About the Morgans?" Meryl (Sarah Jessica Parker) takes aim at a hit man as Paul (Hugh Grant) cowers in “Did You Hear About the Morgans?”

Take Sandra Bullock’s worst romantic comedies, every movie starring Pauly Shore, and every action film directed by Uwe Boll, and they might come close to matching the abject rejection of intelligence and creativity offered by Marc Lawrence’s stupefying, three-day-old-fish-out-of-water comedy “Did You Hear About the Morgans?”

The script is abysmal. The acting banal. The direction anemic. The mustaches overpowering. This by-the-numbing-numbers movie has no fun, no joy, no spirit.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but you’d have to buy an electron microscope to find anything good enough to faintly praise in this 103-minute piece of anti-entertainment matter.

It stars Sarah Jessica Parker (of “Sex and the City” fame) and Hugh Grant as a couple of big-city folks who wind up in the wide open spaces of a dinky Wyoming town after entering into the Federal Witness Protection Program.

The two hate the place, of course. No Starbucks on every corner. No shoe stores.

She’s a vegetarian agnostic stuck in the middle of God-fearing beef country.

He’s a wimpy guy so terrified by the prospect of a grizzly attack that he packs a can of anti-bear spray. (Any bets on how many times he’ll get sprayed in the face instead?)

Parker and Grant play Meryl and Paul Morgan, successful Manhattanites going through the throes of a separation with the Big D looming on the horizon. (Read more…)

Visually absorbing ‘Avatar’ takes technology to new heights

Thursday, December 17th, 2009
Zoe Saldana and Sam Worthington in "Avatar" Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) cautions fellow Na’vi warrior Jake (Sam Worthington) in James Cameron’s daring adventure “Avatar.”

James Cameron’s science-fiction adventure “Avatar” runs for an insanely long two hours and 43 minutes, yet, there’s not a single slack moment in it.

This feature has been edited down to the narrative nubs.

That’s not all.

“Avatar” is also a visually dense 3-D feast stuffed with lots and lots of stuff, and then more stuff. It throws so many elements into a scene that it’s impossible to observe and absorb all the fascinating touches and intricate details in a single viewing.

Ever since Cameron announced his $300 million production of “Avatar” – based on an idea he reportedly developed 15 years ago – the movie world has been waiting with cautious hope that it would be a worthy follow-up to his last critical and commercial smash, 1997’s “Titanic.”

It certainly is, And then some.

“Avatar” is an action film, an intergalactic Romeo & Juliet romance, a pro-Green Movement movie and a fiercely anti-imperialistic essay all wrapped into a state-of-the-art special effects experience. It contains its own original alien language, too.

Cameron’s bold and risky venture represents a historic achievement in movie animation. (Read more…)

Eastwood’s ‘Invictus’ scores on multiple levels

Saturday, December 12th, 2009
Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon in "Invictus" President Mandela (Morgan Freeman) praises rugby Captain Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon) in Clint Eastwood’s “Invictus.”

Clint Eastwood isn’t exactly the kind of director you’d expect to make an ABC-TV After School Special.

But he made one anyway. It’s a fairly good one, too.

It’s called “Invictus,” a restrained, feel-good historical drama merged with the conventions of a formula sports underdog story.

The former appeals to critics and awards; the latter appeals to popularity and box office.

Eastwood chases the best of both worlds in “Invictus,” a well-crafted drama that practically fawns over Morgan Freeman’s South African leader Nelson Mandela to the point of teary-eyed worship.

“Invictus” begins with Mandela being elected president of a once-white-ruled country that had left him to rot in prison for nearly three decades.

As he strolls through his new office, Mandela notices the white staffers from the previous regime have packed their belongings. To everyone’s shock, he tells them that they can stay. Not only that, but that they are needed by their suffering country, provided they are willing to work for its benefit.

More shocked are Mandela’s black security guards when the new president assigns a few tough-looking white guys to their team, mean-looking guys who undoubtedly abused if not tortured black prisoners under the previous Apartheid government.

Mandela calls it “reconciliation,” and his openly Christ-like leadership tests the nature of all South Africans by calling for an end to hatred and the beginning of unity. (Read more…)

Disney returns to roots with fairytale ‘Princess and the Frog’

Saturday, December 12th, 2009
"The Princess and the Frog" A girl (voice by Anika Noni Rose) meets an amorous amphibian (voice by Bruno Campos) in “The Princess and the Frog.”

Walt Disney’s musical “The Princess and the Frog” celebrates an entertaining and overdue return to classical, hand-drawn animation that has been kicked to the cultural curb in an era of gleaming, sanitized CGI and magically morphing stop-motion.

More important, “The Princess and the Frog” introduces the first black heroine to appear in a Disney animated feature.

To be sure, these are both laudable achievements in the annals of Disney animation, even if the movie represents a mishmash of recycled Disney conventions, and the young, black heroine spends most of her screen time as a green frog cleansed of her human ethnicity.

The story takes place in New Orleans during the 1920s when a happy-go-lucky nuclear black family meets with strife when their loving dad dies, leaving behind a wife and a plucky daughter, Tiana, determined to open her own restaurant and serve the food her father would have liked.

Her best friend is an infectiously excitable rich white girl named Charlotte (slammed into vocal warp-drive by Jennifer Cody) whose own father, a drawling, Southern aristocrat named “Big Daddy” La Bouff (John Goodman), adores and dotes on his little girl.

Stepping over this sanitized setup (this is, after all, a fantasy) the plot kicks in when the grown-up Tiana (Anika Noni Rose) meets a talking frog who asks her to give him a kiss and change his life. (Read more…)

Taut, realistic ‘Brothers’ explores real cost of war

Saturday, December 12th, 2009
Tobey Maguire and Jake Gyllenhaal in "Brothers" Captain Sam Cahill (Tobey Maguire), left, re-connects with his black sheep brother Tommy (Jake Gyllenhaal) in “Brothers.”

There’s not a single false emotional note in Jim Sheridan’s lean and spare war drama “Brothers.”

The performances of the entire cast – especially Tobey Maguire and the girls who play his two children – are tight and contained.

That is, until they explode. When they do, their outbursts are not Hollywood showboating, but organic expressions of pain and frustration forcefully escaping from emotional pressure cookers.

“Brothers” is an English remake of Susanne Bier’s 2005 Danish war drama, but to American baby boomers, it will probably recall the Vietnam War drama “Coming Home,” starring Jon Voight and Jane Fonda in a familiar story of a left-behind soldier’s wife falling for another military man when her husband leaves, first physically, then emotionally.

Sheridan’s movie packs none of the heavy-handed, anti-war preachiness of “Coming Home.” Actually, “Brothers” isn’t even about the war in Afghanistan per se.

But it does deal directly with the real costs of war. Not the easy-to-count monetary costs of bullets and vehicles, but the intangible costs of broken families, lost loved ones and psychological damage to returning soldiers. (Read more…)

‘Up in the Air’ soars among the year’s best

Saturday, December 12th, 2009
George Clooney and Vera Farmiga in "Up in the Air" A termination expert (George Clooney) falls for a kindred spirit (Vera Farmiga) in Jason Reitman’s comic drama “Up in the Air.”

The moment you meet Ryan Bingham, you just know it: He’s the master of his universe.

Bingham flies around the country and fires all the employees that company bosses don’t want to deal with themselves. Business is good.

He clocks 350,000 air miles a year. He belongs to all the exclusive, most elite travel clubs. He has packing quick and tight down to a habitual science, and he wields his coveted gold and super platinum credit cards with the grace and power of a Jedi knight armed with a light saber.

He also conducts seminars on preparing backpacks in which he equates possessions and people to dead weight that slows you down.

“Moving is living!” he proclaims.

“Up in the Air” is the slick and engaging story of this man, who flies above the fray of emotional attachments and the messiness of relationships. This noncommital, avowed bachelor is so close to the dashing actor who plays him, avowed bachelor George Clooney, that Ryan Bingham is easily the Clooniest character ever to grace the silver screen.

Director/writer Jason Reitman – who gave us the superior comedies “Thank You For Smoking” and “Juno” – has created (based on Walter Kirn’s novel) a funny, sexy, exceptionally romantic film oozing with post-financial-meltdown Zeitgeist that gives “Up in the Air” both a timely and timeless appeal. (Read more…)