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Column Sat Dec 26 2009
Sherlock Holmes, Nine, It's Complicated, Crazy Heart, A Single Man, Police, Adjective, Alvin & the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel
I was fortunate enough to catch a press screening of Guy Ritchie's richly triumphant, energetic, and fiercely intelligent Sherlock Holmes a couple weeks ago, and everyone I've told how good it is has reacted in a combination of surprise and relief (with a twinge of doubt that will be erased as soon as they see the movie themselves). People clearly want this film to wok, but Guy Ritchie has been on a bit of a downward streak since Snatch, and it's satisfying to see him use his talents as a visual acrobat in combination with a script that almost couldn't fail in the hands of any competent director. I'm not putting Ritchie down by any stretch; to the contrary, his loose and kinetic style with the camera brings this story to life in ways the trailers don't even hint at.
Sherlock Holmes is Guy Ritchie's superhero movie, with Holmes (Robert Downey Jr. absolutely devours Arthur Conan Doyle's creation) as sort of a version of Batman who uses his brains as his primary weapon (followed closely with some fairly formidable fists). It also seems to help that both Holmes and Batman are mentally unstable creatures. And not that the plot of the film isn't impressive on a mass-destruction scope, but it's almost secondary compared to watching Holmes and his heterosexual life partner Dr. John Watson (Jude Law, in what might be his best work to date) outwit and outfight their enemies and those who appear to be friends but are actually just more enemies. I also love how the plot fully embraces the time period and place. The idea of a device that can wirelessly trigger a bomb nearly confounds our heroes. The final battle takes place on the in-progress construction of a structure that usually acts as nothing but background in other London-set films.
But more impressively, Sherlock Holmes finds a way to let us into the mind of Holmes whether he's solving a crime, sizing up a person, or exploring an opponent's weaknesses while boxing with them. The boxing scenes are especially thrilling and eye opening as Holmes notices any little twinge in a competitor's stance or manners and aims his fists directly for these vulnerable zones. But we also get to witness Holmes get his deductions wrong at times, usually because he's recovering from a heavy night of binge drug-taking. This man is as fucked up as he is brilliant.
I'm a big Rachel McAdams fan, and her take as Holmes' potential love interest/betrayer is pretty solid stuff. But she's no match for the love machinations between Holmes and Watson. You see, Sherlock Holmes is also a love story about two men who can't quit each other even when they try. Watson has just gotten engaged, and it's crystal clear that Holmes disapproves — not of the woman but of anything that would take Watson away from him. There is nothing better in this movie than the sometimes childish, sometimes battle of wits banter that goes on between the two men. They might as well be wielding rapiers and wearing fencing masks, they're so skilled and gentlemanly.
Perhaps making out better than McAdams is Mark Strong as the truly nasty Lord Blackwood, a practitioner of the dark arts who seemingly comes back from the dead to wreak havoc on the London government. It is Holmes' job to stop Blackwood (with little to no help from Eddie Marsan's Police Inspector Lestrade). Mark Strong is quite simply one of the most interesting British actors working today — just wait until you see him in Kick-Ass. In Sherlock Holmes, he's practically filling in for the devil, and what a convincing job he does. Strong is quite simply one of the greatest heavies working today, and he somehow manages to find creative new ways to be and play bad with each new role. I can't get enough of this terrific actor.
If it weren't for Downey's other 2009 role in The Soloist, I might be forced to ask: Can this man do any wrong at this point? He infuses Holmes with such a complete sense of character and warped personality that I'm equal parts satisfied, fascinated and eager to see Downey lock down his second franchise gig immediately. His ability to solve and decipher is matched only by his skills at knocking down adversaries with words, wit and fists. The humor comes fast and furious, and Holmes sometimes allows a jest to collide with an insult, occasionally hurting those around him without meaning to. There's a complexity to Holmes that is the result of a sharp screenplay and killer performance. Law's work is more subtle but no less impressive as he attempts to make Watson the voice of reason in the relationship even though he clearly has more fun running with Holmes at his most insane and impulsive. There's really no getting around the fact that this film doesn't just work as a tale of mystery, action and suspense; Sherlock Holmes is, above all other things, fun and thrilling. It's not the kind of movie that garners awards or nominations, and that's because it doesn't really care about such things. The mission is entertainment, and on that front, it succeeds to an obscene degree.
Rob Marshall's musical followup to his triumphant, visionary Chicago seven years ago is a bit of a mixed bag. Parts of it are beautiful and unforgettable, while other sections are frustrating and tedious. I'm recommending the film because, above all else, Marshall has created one of the most stunning pieces of film you'll see all year — and there are actual moments when the message is as awe-inspiring as the visuals. But, at other times, the music, the movement and the message just don't mesh — and occasionally they outright clash.
Based on the celebrated Broadway musical of the same name (which in turn was a take on Federico Fellini's 8 1/2), Nine is a journey through the life and loves of lauded Italian filmmaker Guido Contini (portrayed with the expected reverence and unexpected humor by Daniel Day-Lewis). He is days away from launching his next filmed production, after a couple of real box office and critical clunkers. The sets are being built, costumes are being sewn (by the omnipresent Lilli, played with fearsome gusto by Judi Dench), and the actors are flying in to begin shooting. The problem is, Guido doesn't have a script or even an idea of what the film will be about. He's able to fool his producers and the press into thinking he's got another potential masterpiece in the making, but the truth is, he has nothing but a brain swirling with memories of all the girls he's loved before — some of which he is still loving, including his long-suffering wife Luisa (Oscar-winner Marion Cotillard, who gives the finest performance of the film).
As much fun as Day-Lewis is to watch do pretty much anything he damn well pleases, Guido is a tough guy to get behind or really care about. He has mistresses around the block and more waiting to bed him, a lovely wife who adores him and is destined to hurt on a daily basis, and a severe case of writer's block seemingly caused by a flood of thoughts about more women. Rough life, Guido. And as he recalls each woman in his life fondly, we are given a new song in a different style so that roughly two-thirds of the movie takes place in a fantasy world of hot women, movies that may or may not have been made, and vision in his own mind of his sainted mother (Sophia Loren looking gorgeous). Like the movie itself, the songs are hit and miss. Fergie's rendition of "Be Italian" is pure sex, and she's by far the best singer of the bunch. Nicole Kidman gets a forgettable number, while Kate Hudson gets to go-go shimmy like her mother used to do, but the number is forgettable and disposable except for the much-needed punch it gives to the middle of the movie. The second-best performance in Nine belongs to Penelope Cruz, who also has a respectable singing voice, as Guido's long-standing mistress and a manic-depressive.
But here's the real question: Is there an audience ready to line up to see a film about an Italian filmmaker with songs that reference the neo-realist film movement and have clever references tossed into Fellini's better-known works? It's not really my job to judge whether there's an audience for a particular film, I realize that. And certainly I am among the target audience members who might find this tribute to Italian cinema and beauty quite fascinating. But if I found the film a bit shallow and tedious at times, I can only imagine what a more casual observer might think of this free-spirited and barely contained chaos. I found the entire exercise rather funny, and I'm pretty sure the humor is intentional. Certainly Day-Lewis is in on the frivolous nature of the exercise, and that almost makes it all the more enjoyable.
I should note at this point that Nine is the final screenplay attributed to the late Anthony Minghella (who co-wrote with Michael Tolkin), and just thinking that we won't ever benefit from his layered and singular outlook on relationships, love, loss and rebirth (spiritual or otherwise) makes me sad. Director Marshall has done an admirable job with the visuals, but I just wasn't as sucked into the minimal settings the way I was with Chicago or even his telling of Memoirs of a Geisha. Something's missing from Nine. Maybe it's a sympathetic leading character. Maybe a collection of songs all essentially about the same thing — all in praise of Guido — is a bit too much. But I found it extremely difficult to find an entry point into this story. Cruz and especially Cotillard give us wonderful characters who draw us part of the way into this world, but when they leave the screen, I lost a degree of interest. Nine held me just enough that I'm still saying it's worth checking out, but only after you've seen about a half-dozen of the better films out now. Stay for the sexy ladies, but don't expect to be humming any of these tunes as you leave the theater. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.
As is the case with many films by writer-director Nancy Meyers, no one is more surprised than I am that any part of her silly plots and occasional slapstick humor eventually works its way into something very adult and turns a comedy into something slightly more. Like her previous films, What Women Want and Something's Gotta Give (we'll skip right over her last film, the atrocious The Holiday), Meyers spends just a little bit too much time pushing the laugh agenda and too little time developing her characters enough to make us appreciate their company enough to care about their lives.
In It's Complicated, Meryl Streep plays Jane, a 10-year divorcée and pastry chef/baker, living quite comfortably on her own and away from her cheating, charming ex-husband Jake (Alec Baldwin), now married to the much younger Agness (Lake Bell). It's clear that Jane and Jake have moved past whatever differences caused them to part ways (actually, Jake's infidelity with Agness years earlier seems to have been the primary cause of their marriage's demise). They have three now-grown children — Hunter Parrish, Caitlin Fitzgerald and one of my favorite up-and-coming actresses, Zoe Kazan — and all seems fairly stable in the world. Then one drunken run-in between Jane and Jake in a hotel bar the evening before their son's college graduation leads to the former couple sleeping together, an incident that turns into a full-blown affair in a hurry.
Although the existence of the affair is at first played for laughs — the scenes of Streep and her "girlfriends" (Rita Wilson, Alexandra Wentworth and Mary Kay Place) chattering away over wine and cheese are the weakest in the movie — it is taken somewhat seriously as the film goes on, especially as it affects the children, who we find out are still reeling from the divorce. To further muck up the works, Jane is in the early stages of being courted by her new architect, Adam, played with an uneasy charm by Steven Martin, whose feelings concerning Jane are taken about as seriously as anything else in this very silly and sometimes funny film.
As much as the world likes to talk about the mastery of Meryl Streep, she doesn't really add much of her thespian skills to this part, probably because she doesn't need to. Jane is a very superficial character, and despite her confusion about the two men in her life, Streep realizes this is a problem most 50-something-year-old women would kill to have. The passing grade I give to It's Complicated is rooted entirely in my love for what Baldwin brings to his character. I feel like printing up t-shirts that say "Thank God for Alec Baldwin." The man single-handedly makes this film far more interesting than it is on paper. Much like the role he has on "30 Rock," he's the perfect combination of blustery old-school playboy and middle-aged man still wanting to seem young, hip and virile. Considering that Martin is pretty much playing it straight for most of the film (if you overlook the scene where he and Streep get silly stoned) and the almost transparent presence of John Krasinski as Streep's soon-to-be son-in-law Harley, Baldwin pretty much owns this movie. When he's on screen, you breathe a sigh of relief and know that good things are about to happen. It's also kind of refreshing to hear him 'fess up to the fact that he's gotten fat — he even does us the great pleasure of showing us just how fat with a very funny, albeit low-brow, nude scene.
Despite what the title may suggest, It's Complicated is way too easy to figure out and predict. Situations are made unnecessarily chaotic for the sake of keeping the movie moving forward, and it often feels forced. Still, the movie does offer some genuine laughs and a small handful of sincere thoughts on finding love as you get older and falling back into old patterns regardless of your better judgment and higher education. But it's Baldwin that tips the scales for me. The guy is on fire with such consistency, they should wrap him in asbestos to keep him from singeing others. Go see It's Complicated because your significant other will probably ask you to, but stay involved because Baldwin will make it worth your while.
Sometimes a film is great because the story being told is so utterly original, it floors you that the story hasn't been told before. That doesn't happen too often in the course of any given year. But sometimes, it's about how a fairly familiar story is told and who's telling it. With Crazy Heart, the feature directing debut from actor Scott Cooper (who adapted the story from a book by Thomas Cobb), there's something familiar about most aspects to this story, especially if you've seen any film about an entertainer whose success has be tempered by drugs or alcohol. But by inserting Jeff Bridges, one of our greatest living actors, into the lead role of country singer Bad Blake, this age-old tale is given new life and a fresh perspective that somehow still manages to feel iconic and well worn.
You get the sense early on that Bad Blake enjoyed a certain level of success years earlier but never as much as some of country's most successful heroes. Seeming to channel parts of Kris Kristofferson with a touch Merle Haggard, Bad still has small pockets of devoted fans who come to dive bars and bowling alleys to watch him plow through a greatest hits set with whatever local band is willing to back him. The performances are often a struggle, but he's been doing this job long enough that he can always make it through just long enough to drink as many drinks as people will buy him before, during and after his set before he hops into his busted up pick-up truck to go to the next city. (During one show, he exits the stage mid-song to run into the alley to throw up.) Some nights, he'll let a local groupie into his bed, but he's usually gone the next morning before they wake up.
It's clear that Bad hates this life, the minuscule pay that comes with it, and his place in the world of music. But when he hops on stage, he comes to life a bit more than you might expect. He's always somewhat bitter that a younger singer that he taught to play guitar and occasionally wrote for and recorded with has gone onto huge success while Bad is stuck playing the Bible Belt. Bridges has never been an actor who has was above looking his worst on screen for the sake of a role, but he really lets himself go to pot to play Bad, who we often see in his underwear (or at least well on his way to losing his pants) and looking about as grizzled and unappealing as you possibly can.
Into Bad's life comes Jean, a budding music writer played by Maggie Gyllenhaal with her usual combination of dignified wisdom and grace. Even though she has a young son (Jack Nation) and a history of falling for the wrong guys, Jean spends enough time with Bad in the course of putting her story together to fall for him the way hundreds have before her, the difference being that Bad falls hard for her too. Crazy Heart doesn't have much in the way of story, and that suits these characters just fine. The film is about building characters and observing them coexist as best they can. I'm not spoiling anything by saying that Bad does his share of letting people down during the course of our slice of time with him. But he also takes a real stab at self-improvement, and that might be the strangest turn this movie takes.
It's not exactly an original thought on my part to compare Crazy Heart to the lovely 1983 Robert Duvall vehicle Tender Mercies, also about a country singer, and the comparison is driven home by Duvall appearing late in Crazy Heart as Wayne, a bar owner and one of Bad's old pals. Both films benefit a tremendous amount from the silence between the words. And it's in these moments that Bridges shows us just why he has continued to impress us for decades. This isn't a film about heroes and villains; it's simply about people who we wouldn't think twice about in our daily lives. If storytelling and powerful acting can make me care about people like this, I'm on board. Crazy Heart is not a great movie, but it's told in a noble way that makes watching it a great experience. And for Jeff Bridges, for godsake, you have to go. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.
A Single Man
Timing is everything, and in the early 1960s, the time was not good for a gay man to be public about his orientation, even in Los Angeles. George (a remarkably heartfelt, understated Colin Firth) is a college English professor whose younger lover Jim (Matthew Goode) has recently died, and George, understandably so, is devastated but unable to properly, openly mourn, making his loss all the more painful. A Single Man is a unique film if for no other reason than it's about emotions more than story, which I'm sure thrills you all. But in truth this debut feature from renowned fashion designer Tom Ford is one of the more mesmerizing experiences I've had this year. Although occasionally a bit too self aware as a visual exercise, A Single Man is largely restrained and tempered as a profile of loss and coping.
George is not only "single," but he's also well into middle age and fearful that the best years of his life are behind him with Jim's death. Firth has always been a favorite of mine, playing most roles as buttoned-up but still charming. But George in A Single Man is an entirely different and more refined beast, and the result is by far the best work of Firth's career. In the present day, he's tragic, lost and fragile; in the flashbacks to better times with Jim, he's positively glowing and full of hope. If nothing else, George is the most fully realized character Firth has ever played. And when we meet him at the peak of his loneliness, George has decided that this day will be the day he dies.
But George is no hermit in his grieving. He heads out to visit his old friend (and clearly former lover) Charley, a drunken whirlwind played by Julianne Moore, before his immaculately planned suicide. Moore reminds us, even with limited screen time, that there are no small parts, only parts that require a fiery, boozy redhead who absolutely reeks of a fatal mix of sophistication and desperation. She knows that George is gay, but that doesn't stop her from making a pass at him on her shag carpet. She's fantastic, and nothing more needs to be said.
George has a few choice encounters of what he intends to be his last night on earth, including one with a gay hustler (Jon Kortajarena) hanging outside a liquor store. Their exchange is one of the most interesting things in the film, and reveals more about George's soul than just about anything else in A Single Man. And make no mistake, A Single Man is most definitely a movie about soul. George also has an exchange with one of his students (Nicholas Hoult, who played the young man in About A Boy) outside a bar that holds particular meaning to him. The young man is clearly taken with his teacher and is almost humorously clumsy with his come-on.
Ford adapted the screenplay with David Scearce from a book by Christopher Isherwood, and in lesser hands, I think this material might have been slight and self-indulgent. But there is so much heart and soul in A Single Man thanks largely to Firth and an elegantly sparse visual style from Ford that most of the shortcomings are easily brushed aside. This is a lovely effort with a gentle yet intense take on the subject of loss, with a performance at its core that is easily one of the year's best. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.
If you are a fan of recent films from Romania, then the pacing and themes of Police, Adjective might not come across as so strange. The film is the story of a young undercover police officer named Cristi, who is following a high school boy who likes to smoke a bit of hashish. Although Cristi sees the young man offer hash to his friends (a crime punishable by jail time in Romania), the officer decides to continue following the student in the hopes of uncovering a larger drug distribution network. To this point, the plot probably makes perfect sense. But it's at this juncture where Police, Adjective does the unexpected.
Rather than simply follow the path of a typical cop drama, the film takes us to the police headquarters where Cristi must explain his plan to continue surveillance rather than make an arrest. The final half hour or so of the film is a moral and ethical debate between Cristi and the police chief (with a third in the room to act as the slightly dopey Greek chorus) about the definitions of conscience, law, morality and police. It's a strange exercise that I was pulled into, but a lot of people are going to drift into disbelief at the abandoning of what originally appeared to be the main though line. The two men don't so much debate, as the superior officer engages in a systematic breakdown of everything Cristi believes in (for example, Cristi believes the antiquated laws about punishing those who simply offer drugs will be overturned soon; his boss says that doesn't matter). In the end, the struggle is about what feels right versus doing your job. Police, Adjective took me completely by surprise even if it did lead me astray to a still-satisfying conclusion. Some may consider this work an endurance test, but I reveled in the idea that what begins as a typical police story turns into something worth considering and discussing long after the film ends. If you're in for something far beyond what's floating around in mainstream theaters this month, Police, Adjective may surprise and possibly floor you. The film is now playing at the Music Box Theatre.
Alvin & the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel
There are some movies that I really dislike. It happens. The law of averages is pretty clear on this. I see in the neighborhood of 450 new movies per year (I'm not talking about old movies I might watch at home on DVD), and there are bound to be a sizable percentage of those works that I simply don't like. And then there are films like the motherfucking Squeakquel. I'm not even going to point fingers at the large number of absolute douchebags who took their douchey kids to see the first Alvin & the Chipmunks movie. You do what you can for your kids; I get that. But if the motherfucking Squeakquel does even a fraction of the business the first movie did, caps will be peeled. Remember that when your kids comes crying to you to buy him or her a ticket.
First off, explain this bit of logic to me. Why have the makers of this piece of crap hired some solid comic actors as Justin Long, Amy Poehler, Anna Faris, and Christina Applegate to do the digitally altered voices of chipmunks? Why? You can't tell who is doing the voices; you can't even tell if it's a man or a woman doing the voice of any given chipmunk. For all I know, they hired an army of she-males to play the rodents. When you totally obliterate the voice of the actor you've hired to play an animated character, any nuances that might enhance the comedy are lost. Dummies!
Next question, what the hell was Jason Lee (who played Dave Seville in the first film) doing that was so important that he couldn't be in the entire motherfucking Squeakquel? Seriously, the guy shows up in the beginning, gets in an accident in France, and then vanishes again until the end of the movie. Instead, we get Dave's slacker nephew Toby ("Chuck's" Zach Levi), who is forced to take care of the chipmunks and send them to high school while Dave is recuperating. I'm sorry, was Jason Lee too busy preparing commentaries for the final season DVDs of "My Name Is Earl" to be a part of the entire movie, or was he just too embarrassed to be seen in this trainwreck?
Next question, why are the high school jocks so threatened by the chipmunks? Are they worried the 'munks will bang their girlfriends with their tiny equipment? Just because the girls at their high school are taken with the cute little chipmunks doesn't explain why the guys in the letter jackets get so jealous. Is the Squeakquel really a film about inter-species copulation? That would certainly explain a lot, especially the smell.
And why, God, why did a comic talent like David Cross come back to play the Chipmunks original evil manager Ian? Dude, I know the life of a stand-up comic might not pay a whole lot, but for fuck's sake, man, what are you doing? Who has the photos, and what are you doing in them that makes you have to be so ashamed of them? But few have fallen from higher heights than former Second City alum, director Betty Thomas, who brought us The Brady Bunch Movie, HBO's "The Late Shift" and Howard Stern's Private Parts. Granted, she also helmed 28 Days, Doctor Dolittle and I Spy, but none of those compare to the pain inflicted on the audience by Squeakquel. This woman used to know something about comedy. Now, apparently, she's been hired to direct films used to torture prisoners of war.
I'm not sure what hurt my soul more: the obvious lack of interest in the material that everyone in the movie is showing, the terrible song choices ("We Are Family"? For reals?), the primitive CGI chipmunks, or the fact that it took three people to write this shit. Take your pick, smother it in bat feces, and eat it. In case you need it spelled out, the motherfucking Squeakquel can bite my nuts three at a time.