The Movie Report
December 2009

#598 - 599
December 11, 2009 - December 25, 2009

all movies are graded out of four stars (****)

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#599 December 30, 2009 by Michael Dequina


Avatar one-sheet Avatar (PG-13) *** 1/2
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Avatar demonstrates just how much the world of mainstream Hollywood action filmmaking has suffered without James Cameron active the last decade-plus. With emptily chaotic, hyperactively-edited sound-and-fury mayhem now being the norm, it's a bit jarring--and, ultimately, quite refreshing--how Cameron, while still working at a snappy pace, takes his usual time to establish a groundwork on the page upon which to build the huge set pieces. On one side are the humans, who with the backing of private military might have come to the planet Pandora to harvest the valuable mineral "unobtanium"; on the other, the indigenous humanoid race of the Na'vi, who are literally one with the planet's nature. Caught in between is Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), a paraplegic ex-Marine who, via psychically-linked alien avatar body, infiltrates a Na'vi clan in a token effort to negotiate a peaceful relocation but ends up learning more about the universe and himself than he expected.

As can be gleaned from the above, Cameron is more ambitious in general concept than actual characterization, as the players here are all familiar types--especially on the human end, where Cameron borrows liberally from his own Aliens, what with the gung-ho military types (including a Vasquez-esque tough Latina, here played by--who else?--Michelle Rodriguez) and a slimy corporate bastard all about the business (here, Giovanni Ribisi in for Paul Reiser). Archetypes are abound elsewhere: Jake is the white man who learns to expand his thoughts and visions of the universe from the seemingly "savage" but noble and wise natives; his "teacher" is Neytiri (ZoŽ Saldana), a young Na'vi female who recalls Disney's Pocahontas in her "Colors of the Wind"-esque curriculum, fiery strength, and lithe sensuality; and Neytiri's clan has its noble elder leader and shaman figures, not unlike one would find in Native American tribes, especially those in films.

But as what has set Cameron films apart in the past, it's in the execution of standard tropes and his skill with actors that the film becomes distinctive and involving. For the first time this is a film that I think truly deserves the preferred "performance capture" label over the more commonly used "motion capture" one, as the Na'vi do come off not so much as computer-generated creations (see: any Robert Zemeckis-directed mo-cap endeavor) than true (pardon the pun) avatars for genuine dramatic performances. In Na'vi form, every nuance of expression from Wes Studi (as Neytiri's father and clan leader), CCH Pounder (as her mother), Laz Alonso (as Neytiri's intended, a fierce warrior), Worthington, Sigourney Weaver (as the head human scientist who also has an avatar), and especially Saldana comes through, and as such are able to create not only believable characters but relationships between them. Aiding immeasurably is Cameron's resounding success where Zemeckis has failed repeatedly: in giving the eyes warmth and life, which--for all the incredible FX work on display in crafting the world of Pandora--is perhaps the biggest technological breakthrough in a film full of them.

And so it's almost beside the point to comment on how astounding a technical achievement this is, which is made even more impressive and overwhelmingly immersive in the preferred format of digital 3-D, especially when Cameron has quite literally built his career on breaking new technological ground on each successive film. Where Cameron has also consistently delivered the goods and not always gotten his due credit is his ability to structure a scenario on the page, not just in taking time to set up the world and the characters but really allowing a story's tension and momentum to gradually, organically crescendo to an all-out and well-earned finish. There are some effective early action set pieces, but they all are a mere warm-up to a spectacular final third, which indeed delivers the slam-bang audiovisual goods in a huge way but also--crucially--brings the story and characters to a satisfying climax.

Where Avatar falls a little short is in the romance between Jake and Neytiri, which while compelling doesn't resonate as strongly as the emotional cores of many of his previous films, whether the traditional romantic love stories of a Titanic, The Abyss, or The Terminator (or even True Lies); or his dual epic sequel tributes to maternal love, Aliens and Terminator 2: Judgment Day. But their relationship and that between all the characters is still a lot more substantial and clearly drawn than most action films, and hence offers uncommon heft with its thrills. And are there ever thrills--in the end, though, the film is that fun, entertaining, satisfying ride and cinematic experience it promises to be, even if not exactly "the adventure of a lifetime" as the marketing/hype rather hyperbolically states.

Nine one-sheet Nine (PG-13) **
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For his film adaptation of Maury Yeston's stage musical Nine director/co-choreographer Rob Marshall predictably brings a lot of diverting style razzle dazzle to the screen as he did with Chicago seven years ago. But frothy, dark, vaudevillian satire is one thing, and internal drama and torment--inspired by no less than Federico Fellini's cinema landmark 8 1/2--is quite another, and Marshall doesn't cut nearly as deeply as he obviously wants to with this tale of a celebrated 1960s Italian film director trying to work through a crippling creative block through reflections on the women who shaped his life.

Marshall does begins promisingly with an overture sequence where said director, Guido Contini (Daniel Day-Lewis) enters an empty soundstage that comes to life as the women we will see throughout the piece are introduced. But that's the only really transporting and magical moment of the film, and a couple lackluster numbers that shortly follow fail to get one engaged by, much less involved in, the character of Guido and his plight. When Marion Cotillard (as long-suffering wife Luisa) gets her first turn in the spotlight at around the midpoint, it becomes all too painfully clear what had been missing from the film before that time: that potent emotional synergy that can be achieved through the combination of visuals, song, and performance. Cotillard, proving not only that her La Vie en Rose Oscar was no fluke but that she is a terrific singer and musical performer as well, is the clear breakout of the big-name ensemble, making the viewer really care for her character. The only other person that comes close to making anyone feel something is Nicole Kidman, a reliable hand at carrying a tune and selling the emotion of a lyric, but her role as Guido's muse Claudia is much too brief to have a huge impact. The great irony of the film is that though it's about the central character's inner life, Guido is pretty much a distant cipher throughout, and while Day-Lewis is a game enough sport (one still doesn't know if he can really sing or not, as he adopts more of a character voice, much like Johnny Depp in Sweeney Todd), he isn't given something really meaty to sink his ever-intense teeth into until his big 11-o'-clock number, which even then feels a bit cut short. Everyone else is playing it squarely safe in their wheelhouses. Judi Dench (as costume designer/confidante Liliane) and Sophia Loren (as Guido's mom) are on hand to lend veteran gravitas. Kate Hudson is Stephanie, a perky American fashion reporter with a jones for Guido. Penelope Cruz is appropriately cast as the trashiest and skankiest of slutty hags, doing the (inexplicably Oscar-anointed) overacting harpy act yet again and managing to be even more unintelligible than usual in song, thus rendering what imagine to be some bawdy humor in her song's lyrics completely inscrutable. As a prostitute whom Guido meets as a young boy, Fergie isn't given so much a scene to act but a music video to perform in, albeit an impressively mounted one.

And that points up the major problem at work here: Marshall's continued insistence on placing the musical numbers in a stage-set fantasy world. While this device worked as a unifying thematic concept for Chicago (after all, the main characters craved a career on the stage, and everyone was putting on a "performance" in the real world), here it just makes most of the songs operate a clear remove from the story and characters, which is a problem for the more tangential numbers--and one that could've been easily corrected had Marshall dared to display more creativity and courage to simply allow the characters to burst into song and dance in a scene. (This is a musical, after all--why try to apologize for the songs, especially now that audiences have proven to be warmed back up to the genre?) A major example of this is Hudson's bouncy go-go-style number "Cinema Italiano" (one of the film's two completely original songs), which as presented here is an intercut fantasy scene that serves no practical purpose other than to give Hudson (who has indeed inherited the singing/dancing genes from her mom) a chance to strut her stuff. However, the song could achieved that and organically moved the story (in the exact same spot in the screenplay, no less) had it simply been reimagined as lusty Stephanie's seduction number to Guido. But, no--Marshall has to have it play as a superfluous island on a stage completely removed from context. It's strange that while film allows limitless opportunities to "open up" a work that originated on the legit stage, Marshall seems intent on making the material feel even more stagebound on the big screen.

That all said, the film has some entertainment value, even if just in pieces rather than as a whole film. Not for nothing is Fergie's showstopping "Be Italian" the centerpiece of the promotional campaign; the film is a consistent sight to behold thanks to Dion Beebe's gorgeous cinematography; and Cotillard is nothing short of brilliant in every conceivable way. But then her fantastic work just shows how great and awards-worthy Nine could've been. Instead, it's merely a collection of decently entertaining moments with a classy crew and pedigree.

In Brief

Crazy Heart one-sheet Crazy Heart (R) **
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I applaud Fox Searchlight for their canny awards instincts, seeing an opening in an unusually thin Best Actor field this year for the beloved, four-time-nominated-but-never-won veteran star Jeff Bridges. And in Crazy Heart (which Searchlight squeezed into year-end awards qualification at the last minute), rookie writer-director Scott Cooper has given Bridges a showcase part: a boozy, aging country music star who must face up to the unfulfilling, directionless existence he's built for himself and find a new beginning. Bridges is up to the challenge, as is Maggie Gyllenhaal as a much younger single mom with whom he falls into a relationship, but formidable acting talent aside (Robert Duvall and an unbilled Colin Farrell also turn up in smaller parts), this is routine self-destruction-and-recovery TV movie material with plot developments that can be foreseen well in advance (Bridges is called on to take care of Gyllenhaal's son for an outing? I wonder what can come out of this...). Bridges is a remarkably consistent and reliable actor who is indeed due for some heavy duty awards recognition, but it would be a shame if it would come by way of a creaky vehicle such as this--but then again, that always seems to be the case in situations like these.

It's Complicated one-sheet Did You Hear About the Morgans? one-sheet It's Complicated (R) ***
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Did You Hear About the Morgans? (PG-13) zero stars
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A film bearing the title It's Complicated is begging for the easy, snarky comeback retort that it isn't, and indeed Nancy Meyers's latest slick chick flick is a simple formula affair: a divorced couple fall into an affair with each other ten years after their split, causing all sorts of comic messiness with their grown children, the man's much younger current wife, and the woman's potential new suitor. But also not complicated is why, as in Meyers's previous films--What Women Want, Something's Gotta Give, and The Holiday--a piece of material this routine works as a cute, fun, undemanding entertainer: a charming cast of veteran pros at the top of their comic game, in this case Meryl Streep as the ex-wife, Steve Martin as the nice guy new love interest, and Alec Baldwin as the hedonistic ex-husband. The three of them obviously have a great time, with Baldwin attacking his role with a giddy, infectious relish. His is the showiest part and the one that offers the biggest laughs, but the film really wouldn't work without Streep, who shares sterling chemistry with both Baldwin and Martin (who's fairly underused here but surprisingly, effectively low-key) and simply so luminous, loose, and likable that one has no problem understanding why she's eagerly pursued by both men. Beyond the lead trio, the other characters hardly register (Lake Bell is a nonentity as Baldwin's wife, and John Krasinski has only a couple of moments to work with as Streep and Baldwin's future son-in-law), some of the broader antics are a bit sitcom-level; and beat-for-beat the story progresses as one expects (resistance leads to even more indulgence; being caught in a public place by a familiar who then chooses to keep mum; etc.), but the three stars make it a very enjoyable timepass.

In contrast, anyone who needs to see how a by-the-numbers comedy can go horribly, horribly awry need look no farther than Did You Hear About the Morgans?, in which Hugh Grant and Sarah Jessica Parker play a separated married couple from Manhattan forced into witness relocation in Wyoming. Writer-director Mark Lawrence has dual formulas at work here--the fish out of water scenario of big city dwellers in the small-town heartland; and the bickering-back-to-love rom-com arc--and fails in both respects. That the trailers and television spots repeated use a tired Sarah Palin quip (in reference to Mary Steenburgen's gun collector character) as the centerpiece joke to sell this movie pretty much tells you about the cleverness of the one-note hick humor here; and Grant and Parker's oil-and-water non-chemistry makes the romantic angle half-baked and boring. To end my assessment on the level of the film's writing, you'll wish you never heard about the Morgans. (Ha ha ha)

Sherlock Holmes one-sheet Sherlock Holmes (PG-13) ***
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Guy Ritchie finds a comfortable step away from his usual contemporary lowlife crime milieu in a seemingly unexpected source: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's iconic Victorian era sleuth, who actually offers Ritchie an effective vessel in which to channel his usual obsession with shady schemes in London's gritty, grimy underbelly into a fresh context. Of course, he is aided immeasurably by having as his lead Robert Downey Jr. Downey brings the best of both worlds to the iconic title character, able to convey his famously fierce intelligence and investigative skills while being just as convincing in the more non-traditional touches, such as the brawnier action hero beats and Ritchie's regular penchant for comic verbal byplay among guy's guys. In that latter area, Jude Law is an affable, ideal match as Sherlock's trusty sidekick Dr. Watson; faring less better is a miscast Rachel McAdams, who does have a nice rapport with Downey but otherwise looks unusually uncomfortable and is not given much to work with as the token love interest for Holmes. Holmes purists may object to some of the flashier stylistic flourishes Ritchie brings to the table here (but then it wouldnt exactly be a Ritchie film without them, no?), but like his best films, this gets the job done as both an intriguing plot puzzle and a bouncy, entertaining romp.

3 Idiots one-sheet 3 Idiots ***
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With a title such as 3 Idiots, it would be easy, if not entirely understandable, to dismiss this film out of hand as another in the endless line of no-brainer, slapstick-heavy comedies to come out of Bollywood in any given month. But with notoriously finicky star Aamir Khan toplining the cast, clearly there is a lot more than initially meets the eye in director/co-screenwriter (with Abhijat Joshi) Rajkumar Hirani's film. While Khan did not produce the film, another Indian film figure of esteemed quality, Vidhu Vinod Chopra, did, and while the film does have its share of broader, sillier gags (not for nothing is the word "idiots" in the title), this is very much a character-driven piece, which not only makes the laughs bigger but also earns a deeper involvement. That latter quality is no unimporant detail as the film, inspired by Chetan Bhagat's novel Five Point Someone, follows two distinct plot threads involving those "idiots" of the title (Khan, R. Madhavan, and Sharman Joshi): one as engineering students at university, where their establishment-challenging antics inspire their classmates as much as it irks the establishment, namely the hardass dean (a very funny Boman Irani); and another taking place a number of years later, where Madhavan and Joshi search for their one-time ringleader Khan, who has seemingly disappeared into thin air post-graduation. The three central stars never visually convince as college-age kids, but they nail the more important quality, which is a completely convincing cameraderie that would carry through the years, for this truly is a story about the entire group. Khan may be a clout-wielding superstar and does play the more focal of the trio, but Hirani and Abhijat Joshi's screenplay gives equal weight to their three distinct, individual journeys--and, of course, how being a part of family-like unit shapes their personalities and destinies. The music by Shantanu Moitra is pleasant though not incredibly memorable, nor are Hirani's song picturizations particularly creative (then again, it's difficult to completely cut loose when Khan's love interest is the ever-coordination-challenged Kareena Kapoor), but the story and characters are drawn with such unusual care by the filmmakers and lead actors that the shortcomings are easy to overlook.

#598 December 11, 2009 by Michael Dequina

In Brief

Brothers poster Brothers (R) ***
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The television campaign for Brothers is a bit misleading, selling it as some sort of domestic thriller when it's something quite more substantial than that. Every awards season there's a Hollywood name-cast, performance-driven drama, and Jim Sheridan's remake of Susanne Bier's acclaimed 2004 Danish film BrÝdre is this year's entry. The advertising plays up the triangle that is formed between a presumed-dead Marine (Tobey Maguire), his wife (Natalie Portman), and his ex-con brother (Jake Gyllenhaal), and while that is an element of the plot on the page, the film is really about the psychological scars left by the wartime experience--not just by the soldier to live it first hand, but also the loved ones, first left behind on the homefront and then later all too intimate witnesses to the emotional aftermath. Maguire is terrific here, and his journey from loving, upstanding family man to someone so deeply damaged and haunted in ways he cannot quite grasp is harrowing; strong work is also delivered by Portman, Gyllenhaal, and young Bailee Madison as the eldest daughter of Maguire and Portman. (One disappointment, however, is seeing An Education's amazing Carey Mulligan in only one real scene here--though she makes it count.) This is a tough, solid little picture that is far from the box office bonanza franchises with which Maguire and Portman are most closely associated, but it also serves as a reminder that they are more than up to the task of handling much weightier and demanding material.

Everybody's Fine poster Everybody's Fine (PG-13) ***
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It's the time of year there's generally always a star-driven family bonding dramedy released in time for the holiday season, and this year's entry is this remake of Giuseppe Tornatore's 1990 Italian film. This story of a lonely widower who travels across the country to visit and check up on his grown children packs little to nothing surprising story as far as story, from their airs of contentment being less than honest to a climactic character revelation and all points in between. But what is rather surprising, and what makes the unabashedly sentimental package work a lot better than it should is the actor playing the widower: Robert De Niro. There's no simmering rage underneath his warmth here; just a mellow, all too human lived-in vulnerability that lends the predictable paces of writer-director Kirk Jones (no, not Sticky Fingaz--though that would've been something to see--but the the Brit behind another formula feel-good film a few years back, Waking Ned Devine) some real poignance. Cynics and critics will balk at the schmaltz, but De Niro and the supporting cast (Drew Barrymore, Kate Beckinsale, and Sam Rockwell play the children) go a long way to helping Jones hit his emotional targets.

Invictus poster Invictus (PG_13) ***
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Clint Eastwood has become so synonymous with pretentious, Oscar-baiting projects the last few years that one had wondered if his skills for basic popcorn entertainment had long left him. And so it comes as a surprise, and a rather pleasant one at that, to find that beneath the awards-friendly historical and sociopolitical sheen, Invictus is at its very essence a classically Hollywood, ultra-populist, inspirational underdog sports movie--and a well executed one at that. But before the film gets to the meat of its formula beats, Eastwood goes about his typically deliberate pace setting up the context: in an effort to ease post-apartheid racial tensions and unite the nation into one proud South African populace, newly elected South African president Nelson Mandela (Morgan Freeman) joins forces with national rugby team captain Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon, sporting a terrific Afrikaner accent) to make an against all odds run for the 1995 World Cup. Freeman and Damon, along with the rest of the cast, do solid, understated work that operates not unlike the stealth political mission executed by Mandela and Pienaar; once the rugby action takes over, it is involving and exciting, not only because it is well-staged, -shot, and -edited, but Eastwood and the actors have done their job in subtly forging an audience investment in the outcome of the tournament and what it would mean in the larger scale. Given the talent involved and the iconic historical figure at the center, the lack of grandiose gravitas may leave some observers wanting something weightier and more expansive, but for the very specific slice of history he aims to tell, Eastwood has gone the right way in simply crafting an inspiring and touching mainstream entertainer.

The Lovely Bones poster The Lovely Bones (PG-13) ***
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Peter Jackson's name is most closely associated with either cult fave horror efforts or gargantuan blockbuster epics, but for my money his best film is still 1994's more earthbound drama Heavenly Creatures, which introduced the world to Melanie Lynskey and Kate Winslet. His adaptation of Alice Sebold's novel is more in line with that tale of obsessive friendship and murderous madness, using surreal visuals and effects to support a more grounded story: the difficult emotional aftermath of a teen's (Saoirse Ronan) murder for her family (including parents Mark Wahlberg and Rachel Weisz), her killer (Stanley Tucci), and her restless spirit as it is caught in the in-between of worlds. To put it in easily glib terms, this is a mix of elements of Ghost, What Dreams May Come, and a Hitchcockian thriller, but the whole plays better than that would suggest, largely due to Jackson's imagination and commanding skill: the FX work is striking in how it spins real-life landscapes into something at once otherworldly, imposing, and inviting; and some suspense sequences are remarkably tense. Where Jackson falls short is om making this the tearwringer he clearly wants it to be, as certain sketchy arcs (especially that of Weisz, saddled with a thankless part) fail to connect strongly. Still, if not as powerful as it could have been, it's still a (no pun intended) lovely, poetic piece, highlighted by the work of Ronan, the chilling Tucci, Rose McIver (as Ronan's younger sis) and an amusing Susan Sarandon (as Ronan's grandmother).

Up in the Air poster Up in the Air (R) *** 1/2
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After Thank You for Smoking, Juno, and now Up in the Air, Jason Reitman goes three for three with his turns in the directing chair, further perfecting his sharp, funny, and affecting seriocomic style in crafting films that wildly entertain in the moment and then linger long in the mind and heart. George Clooney gives one of his best performances in a role ideally suited to his talents and public persona: hot shot hatchet man whose vast amount of frequent flyer miles he racks up as he criss-crosses the country to fire people is in inverse proportion to his personal connections, which amount to nil. As with any self-assured, assuredly solo character in movie land, a life-altering epiphany is due the Cloon, but Reitman's illustration of the journey is all the more poignant in its understatement--and in how frequently hilarious it is along the way. As great as Clooney is here, and as sparkling as his chemistry is with Vera Farmiga (as his female match in no-strings, "up in the air" life), perhaps the biggest story in the cast is Anna Kendrick; as the tech-savvy upstart colleague whose innovative idea threatens his cushy lifestyle, she further underscores what a waste the Twilight series of films (where she has a recurring role) are for her. The use of real-world testimonials of actual downsized workers is a bit on the heavy-handed side, but that's but a quibble in a terrifically executed work that is quite funny, smart, and, by the end, surprisingly moving.


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