Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Film reviews in brief, part 2

Posted By on Wed, Dec 23, 2009 at 11:55 PM

Sherlock Holmes
  • The Young Victoria

By Matt Brunson

On the heels of covering last week’s seven new releases, here are four more films opening in time for Christmas. OK, five movies are actually debuting, but I didn’t screen Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel. I suspect no jury on Earth would convict me. So here are brief blurbs for the other four, listed in preferential order.

THE YOUNG VICTORIA (***) — Skewing closer to the likes of Marie Antoinette and Lady Jane than to stately biopics of more seasoned rulers, The Young Victoria turns out to be as interested in charting the sexual and societal awakening of a royal naïf as in examining the historical events that shaped her destiny. Building upon her already diverse portfolio, Emily Blunt handles all of the heavy lifting in the picture's titular role, first seen as a teenager refusing to relinquish control of the empire to her mother (Miranda Richardson) and her conniving advisor (Mark Strong). Once her uncle, King William (Jim Broadbent), dies and she becomes queen, Victoria finds herself free from her mother but now being wooed politically by Lord Melbourne (Paul Bettany) and romantically by her cousin Albert (Rupert Friend). Less probing than many costume dramas yet also lighter on its feet, The Young Victoria won't break out of its niche market but stands to service its target audience in satisfactory fashion.

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SHERLOCK HOLMES (**1/2) — The stench of Van Helsing hung heavy over the trailer for this interpretation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's sleuth extraordinaire — hyperkinetic editing, loopy deviations from the source, an unintelligible plot — but the end result turns out to be far more successful than those early warning signs indicated. Not a great film by any stretch of the imagination, director Guy Ritchie's full-speed-ahead effort still qualifies as decent holiday-season fare, with Robert Downey Jr. vigorously portraying Holmes as a brawny, brainy gentleman-lout and Jude Law providing measured counterpoint as sidekick Dr. Watson. The storyline isn't always interesting as much as it's overextended — at least one plot strand could have been excised — and Ritchie's pumped-up techniques often make this feel less like a movie and more like a video game promo. But there's still plenty to enjoy here, and the ending all but guarantees a sequel — box office returns be damned.

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IT'S COMPLICATED (**1/2) — After the triumph of Julie & Julia, Meryl Streep heads back to the kitchen for It's Complicated, an erratic comedy in which she plays Jane, a successful baker and restaurateur who, a decade after divorcing Jake (Alec Baldwin), finds herself cast in the role of the "other woman" once she embarks on an affair with her remarried ex. Writer-director Nancy Meyers (Something's Gotta Give) surprisingly goes too easy on the character of Jake, a decision that leaves a bad taste and drains some of the fun out of this otherwise agreeable (if rarely uproarious) bauble. But Streep's comic chops remain strong, and the film gets a significant boost from the presence of Steve Martin as a sensitive architect who finds himself drawn to Jane.

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NINE (**) — The biggest disappointment of the holiday season — make that the biggest disappointment of the year — Rob Marshall's second celluloid musical (after the accomplished Chicago) proves to be both tone deaf and flat-footed. Based on the Broadway show (itself loosely based on Federico Fellini's classic movie 8-1/2), this lumbering eyesore (mis)casts Daniel Day-Lewis as egotistical film director Guido Contini, who juggles all the women in his life (played by five Oscar winners ... and Kate Hudson) while attempting to jump-start production on his next picture. Nicole Kidman, Judi Dench, Sophia Loren and (to a lesser degree) Penelope Cruz — all are lined up against the wall and mowed down by Marshall's indifference to their characters, a massacre that extends to his handling of the film's aimless plotting and ugly musical numbers. An inspired sequence bursts through the gloom now and then, but the only true success story here belongs to Marion Cotillard: As Guido's long-suffering wife, she adds the only warmth to this otherwise chilly undertaking.

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