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'Avatar,' 'Nine,' and more

December 24, 2009
I spent  Wednesday evening at the Regal Galaxy theater checking out two of the big holiday movies. Now I feel like I've seen enough of a critical mass to comment.
Here goes, in order of my enthusiasm.

"Princess and the Frog." Disney gets refocused on what it does best in this fun musical that's much more than an equally opportunity gimmick. While it doesn't have breakout sequences like "Beauty and the Beast" and "The Little Mermaid," it does have an interesting heroine, some wonderful supporting characters, and a genuinely tear-inducing ending. It's great to see that the mouse factory isn't relying entirely on the Pixar side of the business. Speaking of Pixar, it has been a terrific year for family films. When the latest Pixar offering, "Up," isn't a lock for Best Animated Film, that's a good sign. I'd argue that "Princess and the Frog," "Up," "Where the Wild Things Are," "Ponyo" and especially "The Fantastic Mr. Fox" all are worthy of spots on the newly expanded to 10 Academy Awards Best Picture nominations list.

"Sherlock Holmes." The makers of the latest Sir. Arthur Conan Doyle-inspired flick have turned the brainy hero into a two-fisted action hero. And that's not a bad thing, especially when he's played by the endlessly charming and watchable Robert Downey Jr. (who deserves a spot as one of Hollywood's finest, most consistant actors) and sidekicked with Jude Law as Dr. Watson. The plot isn't one for the ages--it seems to come from a mixture of equal parts "National Treasure" and Indiana Jones--and the female lead isn't as effectively written, director or acted as the lead boys, but that doesn't get in the way of the fun. Lots of violent action keeps this from being recommended for younger kids, but teens and up should have a blast. Even the Sherlock Holmes club members behind me at the screening (including my librarian) gave it a thumbs up.

"Up in the Air." My colleagues at the Indiana Film Journalists Association voted this one best film of the year. I wouldn't go that far, primarily because the device that gets the plot in motion is very difficult to buy and the ensuing action is fairly predictable. But that doesn't make the grown-up journey worth taking and the details sharp. George Clooney is fine but the breakout performance belongs to Vera Farmiga. 
"Invictus." Even if you don't leave understanding rugby--and even if the screenplay tends to speech-ify a few times too many--Clint Eastwood's sports/history/politics film is well worth the time. Morgan Freeman is just right as Nelson Mandela. Matt Damon is remarkably on-the-money as South Africa's rugby team leader. And the fairly anonymous supporting cast strikes just the right tone.


"It's Complicated." This comedy for grown-ups could have easily tipped too far into farce, but it's restraint makes it all the more effective. Alec Baldwin and Meryl Streep will get most of the attention. But John Krasinski, as Streep's soon-to-be son-in-law, has a lot to do with the film's appeal. And it's good to see a film where the implications of actions are actually considered.
"Avatar." James Cameron's science fiction epic will impress those who like to watch movies and say "how did they do that?" But for me it felt more like a 3D remake of "Ferngully" with elements of Disney's "Pocanontas" sprinkled in. Over-cluttered, video-game style action sequences, 1-D characters, and an overall lack of awe-inducing moments keep me from recommending it to those who aren't predisposed. Side note: If you have any respect for the military, "Avatar" is likely to turn your stomach in its treatment of soldiers. Haven't we matured to a point where we can disapprove of a war (the parallels to today are heavy-handed) without being prodded to cheer the violent deaths of soldiers?

"Nine." The magic that Rob Marshall brought to the film version of "Chicago" is nowhere to be found in his muddy adaption of the musical "Nine." I didn't see the show on stage, but I know that it's central gimmick was that blocked film director Guido Contini was the only man in the show. The rest of the cast of characters was comprised of the women in his life, including his mother, his wife, his mistress and his muse. In opening up the film, Marshall loses that focus. And the Maury Yeston songs--the few that weren't cut--don't translate well into close-ups. The result is an unpleasant, unfocused, dull film that doesn't help us understand or even care about the problems of this weasel. Daniel Day-Lewis seems to be working hard, but to little effect. And the only stand-outs among the women are Marion Cotillard as the wronged wife and Stacy "Fergie" Ferguson, who gives her song--and the movie--much needed uumph.

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