Monday, December 28, 2009

Film Review #218: A Christmas Sampler
Thumbnail Reviews of James Cameron’s Avatar, Nancy Meyers’ It’s Complicated, Rob Marshall’s Nine, Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes, and Jason Reitman’s Up in the Air

It turns out that The Young Victoria, subject of last week’s preview column – it opened Christmas Day at Manlius Art Cinema and would still be a perfect reason to make that short, snowy drive east of the city – is only the tip of the late December movie iceberg. This is a good thing, because overall it’s been a scantier film year than 2008. Awards season cranks up as the year winds down, so some of us have been on targeted missions into the multiplexes – and not for Uncle Joe’s Christmas tie. This week we offer something a little different – not a Top Ten list but a holiday sampler.

First at the box office comes Avatar – in its first ten days it grossed, in the U.S alone, almost half the $430 million spent on its production and marketing – James Cameron’s fable about a crippled U.S. Marine who goes undercover on the planet Pandora, joins with the native Navi people and leads an insurrection to save their sacred lands. Like last year’s WALL-e, Avatar has a message, and Cameron has imbued it with additional Native American myth. Sam Worthington stars as Jake Sully, with Zoe Saldana as Neytiri, the Navi woman who takes him in and teaches him her people’s ways, and Sigourney Weaver as Dr. Grace Augustine. This is a particularly fitting role for Weaver, who brings inevitable echoes of her own Ellen Ripley from the Alien quartet, the second of which Cameron directed in 1986. (Michelle Rodriguez, who plays the helicopter pilot here and whom you may recognize from TV’s Lost, is not the same actress from that film – who can forget Pvt. Vazquez’ “Let’s rock and roll”? – but she looks enough like her to make the casting intentional). Avatar is almost three hours long, tight as a drum, visually breath-taking and moving as all get-out. Make sure to see it in 3-D.

One of three films that opened here Christmas Day, Nancy Meyers’ light comedy It’s Complicated is the latest from national treasure Meryl Streep as Jane Adler, torn between her re-married ex-husband Jake (Alec Baldwin, a very good sport here) and her shy architect Adam (Steve Martin). I confess that possibly only Meryl Streep could lure me into a Steve Martin movie. In this confection, Jane has three young adult kids, a delightful set of women friends (Rita Wilson and Mary Kay Place among them), and a see-all son-in-law-to-be (very well-played by John Krasinski). The cast had as good a time making this large-hearted, very funny movie as you will watching it – especially the lap-top scene.

“Pastiche,” says the British film writer Richard Dyer, is best defined as knowing imitation. I admit I found the prospect of Daniel Day-Lewis in the role created by Marcello Mastroianni for Fellini’s masterpiece 8 ½ intriguing, and the cast of women – Marion Cotillard, Penelope Cruz, Judi Dench, Fergie, Kate Hudson, Nicole Kidman, Sophia Loren – delectable. Nine is Rob Marshall’s film version of the musical based on Fellini’s film, staged in 1982 and then again in 2002. Nine is meant as a tribute to Italian cinema and some of the echoes are there. Loren’s cameo as the mother of 1960s-era director Guido Contini (Day-Lewis), creatively blocked on the eve of a new shoot, is of course close to perfect on several levels. The flash-backs of Guido as a boy running with his pack of buddies along the horizon through the wheat fields wonderfully echo Rossellini’s boys in Rome, Open City – and a number of others. And as Contini’s aggrieved wife, Cotillard delivers the smash performance of the film (with Dench coming in a close second). But Nine is bloated, uneven, and jarring in spots. It’s telling that American actress Kate Hudson’s musical number is what gets the spotlight reprise as the end credits roll, and I hope U.S audiences will not be fooled that this knock-off is the real thing.

Officially Jason Reitman's Up in the Air opened on the 25th too, but we got it here last Wednesday. It is not the best picture of the year by a long shot. But there is something brewing here worth looking at – about the toll that corporate culture has taken on us all in this recession and about the roles of men and women in the financial and social freedom that modern business culture creates for an elite class. Fine performances from George Clooney as Ryan, the ungrounded corporate hatchet man who fires people, Anna Kendrick as the young whippersnapper, and Vera Farmiga as Alex, whose secret twist should not be the jolt it is when it arrives. Alex is an especially troubling figure in her success in achieving all that a man might, complicated by very winning sequences as sympathetic older sounding board when Natalie’s boyfriend dumps her and as Ryan’s date at his younger sister’s wedding. But her turning the tables on Ryan is no victory for women. Up in the Air arrives at a seemingly perfect moment for its subject matter, with its book-end montages of people getting the news they’re fired, its aerial views and its characters' assumptions they know "the big picture," and its sleek industrial look. But adapted from a novel by Walter Kirn written earlier in the decade, its message is still older, so the film easily takes its place among a long line of films and novels deeply wary of modern business life. And the scene in which Ryan arrives onstage at the Mecca of motivational speakers’ conferences in Las Vegas – the symbol of all he is willing to walk away from for Alex – eerily reminded me of what Kevin Costner’s character wound up settling for, a kind of spiritual death after his loss of the Whitney Houston singer – in The Bodyguard. Now that was 1992, and we still didn’t get the message?

English director Guy Ritchie lost Madonna this year and he got yet another bad rap from the movie critics. But even if he is an acquired taste – see Snatch, Revolver, Rocknrolla for starters – Sherlock Holmes is much better than you’re hearing. Gloriously detailed in its look at London’s seamier side (see the January issue of Smithsonian magazine for a tour of Holmes’ London), this film has witty, sharply timed performances from Robert Downey, Jr. as Holmes and Jude Law as Dr. Watson, plus some terrific action staging. It’s a treat, and it lays the groundwork for sequel with the beginnings of a Professor Moriarty yarn.

It’s true that The Princess and the Frog is not on this list – some of my goddaughters and I are tackling that one later in the week.

This review appears in the 12/31/09 print edition of the Syracuse City Eagle. These movies are screening at area multiplexes. “Make it Snappy” is a regular film column that’s also available online, usually with trailers, at – click A&E, where you can read other arts coverage from Eagle Newspapers.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Film Review #217: The Young Victoria
Director: Jean-Marc Vallée
Cast: Emily Blunt, Rupert Friend, Miranda Richardson

He has been instructed in every detail of her likes and dislikes in advance. Indeed this instruction has formed the core of his own education and defined his purpose in life, according to his uncle, the Belgian King Leopold, who has a very long-range plan for keeping the English on his side. But when Albert (Rupert Friend, the tousle-haired star of Cherie) dutifully walks in the garden with Victoria (Emily Blunt) for the first time, he finds he likes the English crown princess much more than he expected. This prompts him to blurt out the truth: he really prefers the composer Schubert, even though he knows she does not. Stronger and more astute than most adults around her suppose, Victoria grasps this burst of sincerity at once, allows she “doesn’t mind” Schubert, and something sparks between them. As will be the case at a number of pivotal moments, in this telling of history integrity proves to be very sexy.

When England’s Queen Victoria had her coronation in 1837 at the age of 18, among the more well-placed in the audience in Westminster Cathedral was an obscure, nearly penniless but well-born German prince named Albert, who was actually her first cousin. Albert was only a bit older than she and, despite the thicket of relentless intrigues surrounding them both, the two had found their way into a clearing of sorts and actually seem to have married for love. Victoria ruled until she was 81, though she lost Albert when he was only 42 to typhoid in 1861. They had nine children and their descendants eventually populated the royal families of eight other European nations. Albert and Victoria also championed reforms in education, welfare and industry, and supported the arts and sciences.

The Young Victoria focuses on a brief but crucial slice of this monarch’s long life, framed by her courtship and the early years of her marriage to Albert. There is a prologue – Victoria as a sheltered, lonely princess with little company other than her dog Dash and her governess, Baroness Lehzen (Jeanette Hain) to relieve the rigid regime imposed by her mother, the bitter, out-of-favor Duchess of Kent (Miranda Richardson) at the instigation of her bullying advisor, Sir John Conroy (Mark Strong), whose scheme is to force Victoria to sign over her rights to the throne and name her mother Regent. And there is an epilogue of sorts, in which we see a forty-ish Victoria, just widowed, laying out Albert’s clothing in the morning, as she would do each day for the remainder of her life.

But the body of the film concerns how these two attractive young people escape together from a life-time as pawns of the power brokers around them and, each having the same impulse, address the idea – quite radical to their would-be keepers – that a sovereign’s job might be the well-being of their people. In another of those pivotal moments, Victoria – who has just told her advisor Lord Melbourne (Paul Bettany) that she has seen “suffering” among her people, which concern Melbourne rebuffs as tinkering with the natural place of the “rabble” – already fond of Albert, warms further to his ideas that workers might be housed more humanely than has happened in the midst of too-rapid industrial growth. Enboldened by her encouragement, he sketches out an architectural plan he has been thinking about for her and she asks if she may keep it.

Now this might seem about as romantic as getting a washing machine for Valentine’s Day. But part of this film’s achievement is making a distant era with what now seem like quite rigid and insular social interactions emotionally intelligible. Albert’s presence in Victoria’s life to begin with is nothing if not coldly calculated, but we share his – and her – growing delight and amazement at what he finds there.

The Young Victoria also manages to provide us with some basic history that goes down pretty easy. As Albert is instructed in who the players are in the English court – besides eventual Prime Minister Lord Melbourne, there’s Lord Wellington and Sir Robert Peel, and the Dowager Queen Adelaide (Harriet Walter) – who their allies are and the nature of their policy leanings, so are we. This is not intricate and detailed history here. But you come away knowing a fair bit more than you might have before and having learned it painlessly. For many of us, the Victorian era is interminably long, brocade-stiff, and associated with repression of every sort. Fittingly, that era is often dramatized in this film by one character putting another soundly in their place. But together, Albert and Victoria loosened some of those places up a bit, and watching that is a treat.

This review appears in the 12/24/09 print edition of the Syracuse City Eagle. “The Young Victoria” opens at Manlius Art Cinema on Christmas Day. “Make it Snappy” is a regular film column in the Syracuse City Eagle, where Nancy's other arts coverage can be found at - click A&E. Nancy is a member of the national Women Film Critics Circle. Reach her at
Film Review #216: An Education
Director: Lone Scherfig
Cast: Peter Sarsgaard, Carey Mulligan, Olivia Williams

Initially marketed as a vehicle for its male lead, Peter Sarsgaard as the aging playboy David Goldman, Lone Scherfig’s An Education has emerged instead as a showcase for its women. Set in the first stirrings of social ferment of early 1960s London and its suburbs, this fine ensemble film centers on a bright young woman’s detour from her path to Oxford University when she accepts a ride in the rain from a charming sleaze with secrets.

As Jenny, 24-year-old Carey Mulligan is generating Oscar buzz for her witty, nuanced performance as a 16-year-old sampling possible and widely divergent futures. As Jenny’s comrade-side kick in the clandestine adventures of their bad-boy boyfriends, Rosamund Pike as Helen strikes just the right balance between an older, worldlier and eventually tackier woman who fusses with Jenny’s hair and wardrobe now but would be implausible as an appropriate friend later. As the haughty head-mistress whose few short appearances embody distilled and blindered authority, the versatile Emma Thompson is as perfect here as she was in her recent cameo as “sexual legend” in another recent British import depicting roughly the same period, Pirate Radio. As Jenny’s mother, Cara Seymour is well-intended and a little swept-away by the times and her daughter’s slick suitor, but – crucially – never depicted as foolish. (One can say the same for Alfred Molina as Jenny’s dad and for Jenny’s young aspiring boyfriend, who may be a tad bumbling but knows when to make his exit gracefully.)

Then there is Miss Stubbs. As the plain teacher whose literary lessons about Mr. Rochester of Jane Eyre should warn us and Jenny too of what’s coming, Olivia Williams just won the Invisible Woman Award from the national Women Film Critics Circle, given for the performance by a woman most ignored by critics. On the WFCC’s annual awards show, broadcast live from WBAI Pacifica in New York City on December 9th (with a patch-in from WAER 88.3 FM here in Syracuse by yours truly), Chicago film critic Jan Huttner called Williams’ performance as Miss Stubbs “the heart and conscience of the film.” Huttner wondered how come so many male reviewers felt blind-sided by the “sudden” change of tone in the movie’s third act, since Miss Stubbs’ telegraphs the outcome from virtually the first scene – certainly well before David’s partner in crime Danny (Dominic Cooper) rolls his eyes to Helen at David’s fabrications.

Despite being well-liked generally by film reviewers with a 94% positive rating at Rotten Tomatoes, the “consensus” on the film at that site is indeed a caution that “the latter part of the film may not appeal to all [despite being] a charming coming-of-age tale.” But WFCC doubly honored An Education with its annual Karen Morley Award for the film that best exemplifies a woman’s search for identity. For those who prefer An Education as a light romp in which opportunistic older men need see no particular damage done by their dalliances, and may assume that women look back on these events only fondly, the third act does take a dreary turn.

Here, Jenny discovers letters addressed to “Mr. and Mrs. David Goldman” in David’s sports car’s glove-box at the worst possible moment, just as David is driving Jenny and her parents to a restaurant to celebrate their engagement. By now, Jenny has watched David charm her parents in a series of escalating lies about himself and their outings, and she herself has been charmed out of her initial consternation at his business dealings, because – as she says forlornly at one point – before she met him nothing had ever happened in her life. In this moment and in what follows, Jenny discerns the point to this part of her “education” in the shock – so rude when we are at a certain age – that how someone treats others is a fairly reliable prediction of how they will treat us too. Only then is Jenny able to ask Miss Stubbs for help. One might say Jenny – clearly so bright in the film’s opening scene – comes back to her right mind, with a snap of clarity that I found frankly exhilarating.

Interestingly, Danish director Lone Scherfig, perhaps best know for her 2000 film Italian for Beginners, does not take this period piece too deeply into the decade’s rock music and social rebellion. Jenny is not listening to the music broadcast from pirate radio ships anchored in the North Sea, so emblematic of her own generation’s flowering. Jenny is still listening to the steamy older French singer Juliette Greco, her notion of sophistication in a still-out-of-reach, older world. But as the film ends, she’s in Oxford at last, and the Beatles can’t be far behind.

An abbreviated version of this review appears in the 12/17/09 print edition of the Syracuse City Eagle on page 12. Read the full roster of WFCC’s 2009 film awards at Thanks to WAER Syracuse for the use of Studio A and continued support. “An Education” continues screening at Manlius Art Cinema through December 24. On Christmas Day, Manlius opens The Young Victoria, which we’ll review in next Thursday’s issue. “Make it Snappy” is a regular film column in the Syracuse City Eagle. Nancy is a member of the national Women Film Critics Circle. Reach her at