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.