Monday, February 1, 2010

The Film Round-Up for February

In this edition of the Film Round-Up: An unhinged detective, a steel magnolia, a father wading through the destruction of the apocalypse, and why you should be afraid of Nancy Meyers.

These reviews previously appeared in the February issue of ICON and are reprinted with permission. (Thanks, Trina).

In reviewing offbeat and independent films, I missed most of what the multiplex offered in November and December, when studios unload their Oscar hopefuls. With Academy Award nominations coming Feb. 2, I figured it was high time for me to catch up.

Sherlock Holmes (Dir: Guy Ritchie). Starring: Robert Downey Jr., Jude Law, Rachel McAdams, Mark Strong, Eddie Marsan, Kelly Reilly. A beloved literary character gets a movie makeover, and the result is a rollicking, vastly entertaining start to a certain franchise. In late 19th century London, renowned detective Holmes (Downey Jr.) and his trusted partner Watson (Law) follow a disgraced politician (Strong), whose apparent resurrection and enthusiasm for black magic threatens to bring the country to its knees. Thrown into the mix is Holmes' old flame (McAdams), a brilliant con artist whose shifting allegiances keep everyone on edge. Ritchie (Snatch) slows down his hyper-kinetic style to tremendous benefit: The movie runs like a champ while establishing Downey Jr. (who's perfect—just the right mixture of mischievous and confident) and Law's snippy brotherly rapport, the real reason to watch the movie. The talented McAdams, however, has trouble finding her footing. The character has no hook, and she's not seductive enough to give it the proper oomph. Other than that, Sherlock Holmes continues an emerging trend: big-budget, well-written action-packed blockbusters (e.g., Star Trek, Iron Man) that everyone can enjoy. [PG-13] ****

It's Complicated (Dir: Nancy Meyers). Starring: Meryl Streep, Alec Baldwin, Steve Martin, John Krasinski, Lake Bell. Jane (Streep) and Jake (Baldwin) have been happily divorced for 10 years, an arrangement that has served them and their three grown children well. While in New York for their son's college graduation, the divorcees have a one-night stand, which blossoms into an exes-with-benefits deal. However, the passionate arrangement hits a snag when the unhappily remarried Jake develops real feelings for Jane just as she's dating the nice-guy architect (Martin) working on her house. Like her previous movies (Something's Gotta Give, The Holiday), Meyers has a knack for breezy dialogue and getting charming performances from her leads. And like her previous movies, Meyers' insistence on setting them in luxurious locations and giving her heroines ridiculous occupations—Jane owns the kind of gourmet bakery that sells $8 muffins to a willing public—belittles the message of strength that she's espousing to a graying sisterhood, most of whom are battling problems in houses far smaller than Jane's garish addition. By portraying real problems in a fantasyland farce, Meyers has brought baby boomer problems to the masses. That's admirable, but her cutesy, compromising style casts a pall over the entire film. [R] **

The Blind Side (Dir: John Lee Hancock). Starring: Sandra Bullock, Tim McGraw, Quinton Aaron, Jae Head, Lily Collins, Kathy Bates. Before he made the NFL as a left tackle in 2009, Michael Oher essentially grew up homeless and forgotten in the nasty Memphis projects. Thanks to his huge size and freakish athletic ability, Oher got into a fancy private school as a teenager. But Oher (who is black) got a home, encouragement, and much-needed stability from the affluent (and white) Tuohy family, whose children attended the same school. Bullock plays Leigh Anne Tuohy, the indisputable head of the family, a feisty but loving steel magnolia who invites Oher (Aaron) into her home and shepherds him through the school's rigorous academics and to his eventual athletic success. Yes, the movie shamelessly guns for Oscar votes with its making-a-difference tone and dramatic showboating, but it works thanks to the gripping story and Bullock's spirited performance. The Blind Side is the kind of well-intentioned, morally superior fare you keep waiting to hate but never do. It entertains and uplifts you against your better judgment. [PG-13] ***

The Road (Dir: Jon Hillcoat). Starring: Viggo Mortensen, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Charlize Theron, Robert Duvall, Guy Pearce. The world is dying, but not in an Al Gore, down-the-road kind of way. Fires and earthquakes are now part of the scenery. The land is barren and the skies are gray. With food scarce and survival paramount, packs of marauding, gun-toting cannibals hunt for fresh meat. Thrown into this awful new reality, a father (Mortensen) and son (Smit-McPhee) search for food, shelter, and a reason to continue. Adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's novel is relentless in its nervous misery, but hopeful in its lasting message. Equipped with a wild beard and gaunt frame, skeptical and world-weary, Mortensen is exceptional in the lead, matching the movie's stark visuals. Theron is very good as Mortensen's defeated wife, who we see in flashbacks. Two factors prevent the movie from being truly great, and why you probably haven't heard a ton about it: Mortensen's almost redundant narration and Smit-McPhee's performance, which is more whiny and needy than wide-eyed and terrified. [R] ***

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