Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Sherlock Holmes

Tonight I saw Sherlock Holmes, starring Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law.

Guy Ritchie's dumbed-down version of Holmes is not without appeal, it's just not what I've pictured of the character all my life.

The dapper Sherlock (Downey Jr.) is in between cases after solving a big one and has turned into somewhat of a hermit. His faithful Watson (Law) encourages him to get back to work, and additional motivation is found by Irene (Rachel McAdams). I don't think I'd be out of line here mentioning that the chemistry between Downey Jr. and Law is far more electric than that of Downey Jr. and McAdams.

Anyway, soon the three are on the chase with Holmes predictably outwitting everyone in his path (and stopping to explain himself after each feat). The fight scenes are predictably exciting (since that's Ritchie's "thing"), but at times it's almost expected that a "BOOM" or "POW" will emerge from a puffy cloud above their heads. It's that comic book-ish.

Nevertheless, I'd say the greatest elements of the film are the cinematography and the art direction. London looks so gray and spooky, I remembered how I felt years ago when visiting the city, I took a Jack the Ripper murder mystery tour that led me well into the night. It creeped me out; not only because the stories I was hearing were true, but because the mood was "just right."

And while I don't believe the character portrayals (though undeniably entertaining) are faithful enough to their literary counterparts, I do appreciate how cool it all was to watch.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

A Single Man

This afternoon I saw A Single Man, starring Colin Firth and Julianne Moore.

George (Firth) is a British gay English professor teaching at California's Stanford University. It's the early 60s and he's arrived at a time in his life where he no longer finds it worth living. For eight years he's mourned the loss of his lover Jim (Matthew Goode) whom we meet in flashbacks.

It seems the only people who care for George are his friend Charley (Moore), who has spent their friendship wishing he was straight; and Kenny (Nicholas Hoult), a nosy student who seems genuinely concerned about him. And attracted to him.

We follow George through memories of happier times and through the rituals that one endures when they're preparing to end their life: getting the affairs in order, writing goodbye letters, saying nice things to those around them perhaps to show the compassion they felt they were never given.

He spends one last night with Charley, and then sparked by a warm memory, decides to have a drink at the local bar where he met Jim. Following close behind him is Kenny, who he decides to spend the evening with.

Before I go any further, I have to state that all of these scenes play out in quiet, muted tones until something in the character ignites and the color on the screen pops to illustrate it. This could be annoying if not done well, but Director Tom Ford, fashion phenom, happens to know color. It's a technique that not all could use, but he uses it well.

Also to note is the absolute perfect casting Ford found in Colin Firth. Just as convincingly as he usually plays a handsome heterosexual suitor, here he is most certainly a gay college professor with an appetite for only men. It may just be the role of his career.

Not to be understated is the pitch-perfect performance by Julianne Moore and the mature turn of roles for About a Boy's Nicholas Hoult. He's still a fantastic actor, but now instead of being awkward and pudgy, he's handsome, chiseled and...nude. After getting past the same mannerisms he had as a child, it's not hard to see him as a completely grown-up (hot) young man.

This field trip of pain isn't exactly the most pleasant thing to watch, but it's also not as dark as it could have been. Sometimes it's a comfort to see a film where humans just simply act human.

Friday, December 25, 2009


Today I saw Nine, starring Daniel Day-Lewis and a slew of women.

Director Guido Contini (Day-Lewis) has the weight of the world on his shoulders. He believes this is because he is about to make another film, but really it's because he can't successfully manage his addiction to women.

We meet each of the ladies in his life through a series of musical numbers and brief encounters with him. His mistress (Penelope Cruz) gets the most screen time.

Really, there's not much of a story here and therein lies the problem. A famous, handsome director is approaching a state of nervous breakdown because he has it all and "all" turns out to be too much.

His wife Louisa (Marion Cotillard), aside from being beautiful, does nothing to convince us that he wouldn't get bored being married to her. She's alternately obedient and disobedient, then finally unwilling to look the other way at her husband's transgressions. He probably truly loves her, but then again, he probably truly loves all of them.

A consistent ear for him comes in the form of Lilli (Dame Judi Dench), a wise costume designer that sees not only his aesthetic vision, but also his wandering eye. She provides a motherly like counsel for him while his real mother (Sophia Loren) appears to be paraded out into numbers just so we can marvel at how beautiful she still is.

In the not-sure-why-they're-even-there department we find a Vogue writer named Stephanie (Kate Hudson) who offers possibly the best dance sequence, though shows no evidence beyond physical attraction that she has a connection with Guido. There's also a very random number with the voluptuous Saraghina (Fergie), an apparent beach recluse who enabled the younger Guido to learn about women. She's easily the best singer of the bunch (no surprise there), but her performance feels underutilized because she barely moves from her dancing chair.

Also on screen is the director's muse, Claudia (Nicole Kidman) who serves as nothing more than a reminder that Guido likes beautiful women. Hey, guess what? We already knew that.

His most believable and developed relationship is with his mistress Carla, who truly loves him despite her own marriage. He treats her as men typically treat their mistresses: hiding her away and orchestrating her every move, then forgetting about her once he's had his fill of the sex and adoration only a good mistress can provide. And yes, there are always consequences for all involved.

The shame about this movie is the amount of Oscar® caliber talent that shares the screen, but with the exception of Day-Lewis, doesn't get to prove it. He is amazing in whatever he does and this role is no different—in fact, the most delightful thing about Nine is finally seeing him act as a somewhat traditional leading man. He's sexy, he's well-dressed, he hasn't killed anyone (that we know of) and good God, he even sings!

But it's not enough to make up for this pieced-together series of vignettes that are too weak to amount to a quality musical.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

The Princess and the Frog

Tonight I saw The Princess and the Frog, featuring the voices of Anika Noni Rose and Bruno Campos.

Tiana (Rose) is a working girl. She was raised by a seamstress and a military man, and has grown into a popular New Orleans waitress who is saving up to open her own restaurant. One night when she's working at a party hosted by her friend Charlotte (Jennifer Cody), she stumbles upon a frog who promises her the money to open her restaurant if she grants him a kiss. She complies, but instead of him turning into a prince to produce the money, she turns into a frog as well. Turns out he mistook her for a princess so the kiss didn't work.

After many adventures in the bayou in an effort to return themselves to their normal state, the two fall genuinely in love and seek the help of a voodoo priestess. Before we find out if her solution will work, they make friends with creatures from the swamp—Ray, the lightning bug who is more appealing in spirit than in appearance; and Marlon, an alligator who likes to play horns. There are a several cute musical numbers (nothing makes a more adorable accordion than a caterpillar) in the classic Disney tradition, where the leads are surrounded by dancing animals. There are also scary moments where the Shadow Man (who looks like a cross between John Waters and Prince) attempts to ruin all of the good people with his evil spells.

The film is getting much attention for the detail that is most insignificant in the story: Tiana is black. Thankfully, Disney doesn't make race an "issue" here and simply tells a sweet love story.

But after that, there isn't much to it. It is a beautiful film by way of old-fashioned hand-drawings, which burst with color, and that's infinitely pleasant to watch. But the characters aren't very deeply recognized and the ending (as with most Disney flicks) is painfully easy to predict.

Monday, December 21, 2009

It's Complicated

Tonight I screened It's Complicated, starring Meryl Streep and Alec Baldwin.

Divorce is never easy, especially when your husband leaves you for a woman half your age. That's what Jane (Streep) has had to deal with for the past ten years. But she's moved on gracefully, creating a beautiful home of her own and a successful business.

Jake (Baldwin), her ex, is not as happy—helping his young wife raise her 5-year-old and being pressured into producing a child with her via fertility treatments. He has "no quiet" in his life when he needs it most.

When the former mates reunite at the same hotel for their son's graduation, the wine flows and the sparks fly. They end up in bed and are so euphoric after their one night together, they decide to do it again...and again.

All of this is kept from their three grown kids, though their charming soon-to-be son-in-law Harley (John Krasinski) accidentally sees them together at a local hotel. Lucky for them, he keeps his mouth shut.

Meanwhile, Jane's architect Adam (Steve Martin), damaged by his own divorce, is falling for her and hoping that she's available.

After discussing her indiscretions with her girlfriends and her shrink, though she likes Adam, Jane decides to give the affair with Jake a shot. Of course, trouble follows.

The movie is shamefully predictable and aimed at the 50-something female demographic (though Jane's girlfriends sure do disappear early in the film). That said, I will never complain about spending two hours with these two leads. Their performances are spirited and Steve Martin is simply delicious icing on the middle-aged cake.

There is nothing new to be learned from this film. Sex with an ex can be great. People do have affairs. People do fall out of love with their spouses. People do always wonder "what if?"

At least this one lets you laugh along the way.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Up in the Air

This morning I saw Up in the Air, starring George Clooney and Vera Farmiga.

Ryan Bingham (Clooney) is slimy. Not in the way a car salesman is slimy (though he does a little motivational speaking on the side), but in a way that only those prone to habitual selfishness can be. His family barely knows him. He is wifeless. He is childless.

So, he has the perfect job. He's a professional "terminator" who flies all over the country to fire the employees of downsizing companies. He takes pride in his resolution techniques and has an obsession with accumulating frequent flier miles.

When new recruit Natalie (Anna Kendrick) comes on the scene with a technological idea that will ground Bingham and his colleagues from in-person firings, he doesn't take the news lightly and complains to the boss. As a result, he's assigned to show Natalie the ropes by taking her on a series of trips and training her how to do his in-person job.

These scenes—and the relationship that develops—could have been painfully predictable were it not for the smart writing that instead made it believable. The two don't become best friends and they're not interested in being lovers, but they do stand to learn a lot from one another.

Also on the journey is Alex (Farmiga), a spunky businesswoman who seems to be the male version of Ryan and has no reservations about starting a sexual relationship with him the first night they meet. Alex and Ryan would be vastly unappealing alone, but together seem better.

What transpires will please some and disappoint others, but few can dispute this film is engaging, smart and entertaining. Farmiga should be a bigger star by now and Kendrick is a new, nice surprise. Clooney is at his charming best when he's playing himself, and I would bargain this role comes pretty close.

If I had to find something wrong with the film it would be seeing Jason Bateman for the upteenth time as the stuffy, corporate guy who talks down to people. As the boss, he reverts back to every other asshole he's played and almost seems tired doing it. Guess what: we're tired of seeing him do it. He's a good actor—let's utilize him in some better way.

There's also a hefty amount of product placement from American Airlines and Hilton hotels, but for a film based on travel, you almost need some real names thrown in for authenticity.

At the end of the day, the story examines a question many struggle with: is it worth it to go through life with a partner, surrounded by meaningful connections to family and friends, or would we all be better off flying solo?

The answer is different for each of us.

Saturday, December 19, 2009


This morning I saw Avatar, starring Sam Worthington and Zoe Saldana.

It was the topic of Cinebanter #84, which is available here.

Friday, December 18, 2009


Tonight I saw Invictus, starring Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon.

At the start of the film, Nelson Mandela (Freeman) is just being released from prison and assuming his role as the South African President.

He knows that as he forgives a nation that imprisoned him, he also needs to earn the respect and support of the very people he's forgiving and unify South Africa. Instead of going the traditional route of politics (or not even trying at all), he cleverly goes about it through sport: the traditionally white sport of rugby.

Enter Francois Pienaar (Damon), the Afrikaner rugby captain of the not-so-successful Sprinbok team. He seems like a nice enough guy, but obviously comes from privilege and perhaps is not yet enlightened to Mandela's ability to lead.

Mandela invites him for tea and an instant mutual respect is born—with desirable results for both parties.

The President infuses the captain with the will and inspiration to create a winning team; in doing so the captain begins to build something that all South Africans can agree on. And the rest is somewhat predictable (especially if you know your South African history).

So is the movie good? Sure. Morgan Freeman (who truly resembles Mandela) is always a pleasure to watch and Matt Damon impresses me more and more with every role. In this one, he seems comfortable in the pretty-boy skin, yet still stretches with an African accent.

There are moments of pause that probably wouldn't be there if Clint Eastwood hadn't directed it, but there are also sentimental seconds that last just long enough to bring a tear. Really, a fine balance.

I wish I understood rugby more because the game scenes are aplenty, but I still enjoyed the story nonetheless.

It's just one tiny piece of Mandela's incredible rise to power, and it made me want to see more.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

(Disney's) A Christmas Carol

Last night I saw A Christmas Carol, directed by Robert Zemeckis.

To adapt one of the most well-known stories in literature can't be an easy task, but I admire anyone who strives for it, including Zemeckis.

His animated approach (using technology similar to his previous hit The Polar Express) is ambitious and intricate. When you're taken into Scrooge's neighborhood in the first few frames of the film, you're undoubtedly stepping into Dickens' England. Not only do the buildings and streets appear real, the faces of the characters are much closer to actual human likenesses than any other animated film to date. Even the cleavage on the dancing women is convincing. Yes, I said cleavage.

And that brings me to my next point: this is not a movie for young children. Because the dialog stays very faithful to the original text (and that's a good thing), many of the scenes are dark and frightening. The spirits (except for maybe the Ghost of Christmas Present, who is somewhat goofy) will seem creepy even to adults. The Grim Reaper-like essence of the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come elevates the evil to a definite PG level.

The voices are also startling--though Jim Carrey provides the pipes for Scrooge AND all three spirits. The action scenes (mostly Scrooge being transported from place to place) are also extremely loud, and if you see it in IMAX as I did, you may want to pack some earplugs.

So how does this version measure up to previous versions? Well, nothing can beat the classic live action version in 1951 starring Alastair Sim or the more popular George C. Scott interpretation from 1984. But as far as making the original images from the book illustrations and the story come to life, this is as good as it gets.

The timeless lesson is as relevant today as when Dickens' wrote it in 1843. At the core of the film is a delightful old story about a man who has to battle his inner-demons to realize what life should be all about. One can only contemplate what our world would be like if everyone were held to such an extreme manner of self-evaluation.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

The Maid

Tonight I screened The Maid, starring Catalina Saavedra and Mariana Loyola.

Raquel (Saavedra) is not someone you'd want to be friends with. As the maid for the Pilar family, she throws away gifts they purchase for her, eats alone (though she's apparently welcome to join them), hides snacks from the children, and accidentally-on-purpose forgets simple instructions when she gets angry with the teenagers.

But this isn't a Cinderella situation. Although the kids can be a little demanding, they're really not so bad and their parents (her bosses) treat her exceptionally well. It seems Raquel is just burnt out—she's been working in the same home all of her adult life and never learned how to have fun. Her cooking and cleaning routine is so robotic, just watching her execute it makes you tired.

When she starts having headaches and exhibits signs of dizziness, the Pilars think it's time to bring in some additional staff. Raquel mistakes these extra ladies as a threat and does everything in her power to drive them away.

These scenes are at once sad and comical because she really is awful to everyone, but you can't help but empathize with her. Raquel's life—by her own design—is confined to one room of a house, which contains a twin bed, a small nightstand and one tiny photo album of snapshots. All of the pictures we see in the album are of Raquel and the Pilar family. Aside from a phone call from her mother on her birthday, we see no evidence that Raquel has a family of her own.

But even in the photographs, we're witnessing the past. It seems that over time Raquel's connections to other human beings got lost in the shuffle and she has no idea how to regain them.

Enter Lucy (Loyola)—a sprite of a woman who moves in when Raquel is deemed too ill to continue her duties. Lucy is loud, frank, honest and most importantly: she's not afraid of Raquel. It seems The Maid has met her match.

What transpires is both shocking and delightful in equal measure, and nearly every character in the film (except for Dad, whose only purpose seems to be building model ships) is made to be more endearing as a result. The performances of the leading ladies especially, should be commended.

The film will keep you entertained and interested throughout no matter how well you do or don't relate to its characters. And for those who have ever had times of isolation or loneliness, you may just find yourself choking back tears.