Nine (2009)

★ ★ ☆ ☆

Nine set out to combine an homage to Frederico Fellini with a dazzling musical. It accomplished neither. It is not 8 1/2, and it is not Chicago. At best, it is an elaborate ode to the glamour of 1960s Italy. At worst, it is a lavish, self indulgent tribute to Hollywood. Either way, it was a major disapointment.

Unlike Rob Marshall's previous musical, Chicago, Nine fell completely flat. The musical numbers were awkward, and monotonous. Kate Hudson's number was outright terrible. The only one that was even passable was from Marion Cotillard. Cotillard was one of the few bright spots in this otherwise mundane film. Coming off a well deserved Oscar for La Vie En Rose, Cotillard proved once again that she is one of the most skilled actresses around. This is the first movie I've ever seen where Daniel Day Lewis was actually a sore spot. Not only did he not capture the tortured film director, but his accent and mannerisms were downright annoying. He came off as more of an Italian stereotype than an actual Italian. If there was one thing I expected from Nine, it's decent acting. It seems even the otherwise stellar cast couldn't bring the uninspired story to life.

As bad a film as Nine was, the one almost saving grace was the cinematography. The interplay between light and darkness suggested the emotions that Daniel Day Lewis was supposed to conjure up. Shifting between colour and black and white was extremely effective in creating the feeling of a modernized period piece. Using several prominent backdrops from Fellini's film career helped to capture this feel, though the tiresome dialogue never ceased to ruin the effect. While Fellini's films were always subtle and indirect, Nine was quite the opposite. Rather than an ode to Fellini, the movie seemed to be a Hollywood tribute to how damn cool 1960s Italy was. I have the feeling that there is a pretty good tourism commercial buried under the rubble of this 118 minute disaster.

Unless you are extremely interested in fashion (which I am not), I can't see any reason to subject yourself to Nine. If you want to see a great modern mockumentary, pick up a copy of Adaptation. If you want to see another musical of Chicago caliber, I'd recommend Sweeny Todd. If you want to see a combination of the two, I'm afraid you'll just have to wait.


Sherlock Holmes (2009)

★ ★ ★ ★

The redemption of Anthony Peckham came swift and mercilessly. A few weeks ago I derided the screenwriter for his mind numbingly dull portrayal of Nelson Mandela. While the screenplay for Sherlock Holmes was a collaborative effort, it has certainly ameliorated my opinion of the man. Guy Ritchie has finally established himself as one of the premier contemporary directors. His films never lack in style, but for once that style is matched by its substance.

Though purists have derided the film from departing from the original stories, this departure was well worthwhile. Robert Downey Junior's Holmes does not resemble the stolid Victorian Holmes of Arthur Conan Doyle. I've never quite been able to drag myself through his stories, yet I was on the edge of my seat for the entire film. Downey and Jude Law made one of the best on screen partnerships in recent memory. Like Holmes and Watson, Downey and Law were mutually complementary. Even in the darkest moments, neither let the other take himself too seriously.

This was by far the best depiction of 19th Century London yet created. Rather than the putrid industrial wasteland that is typically portrayed, Richie's London was a somewhat hopeful place. The rapid development of the city is embodied in the nascent Westminster Bridge, which made for a clever backdrop. As the film progresses, we can feel the gradual triumph of science and industry over the forces of superstition and titular rule. In contrast to most films in this period, progress was not greeted with lamentations.

The rebirth of Sherlock Holmes is even more stunning than that of Batman. At best, I imagined this would have been comparable to the original Indiana Jones movies. The result far exceeded my expectations. The blend of action, comedy, and intrigue made this the most enjoyable movie of the year. I'd go so far as to say that it rivals The Dark Knight as the most enjoyable film experience of the decade.


Up in the Air (2009)

★ ★ ★ ★

It is rare to find a movie about a complex political issue that isn't either simplistic, heavy handed, or just plain boring. Jason Reitman has established himself as one of the few directors capable of making these movies. On the surface, Up in the Air seems like a mess of cliches. In the first few minutes, you could be forgiven for thinking you were sitting through a Michael Moore movie. However, Reitman isn't out to create villains. His characters are more than capable of prosecuting themselves.

Reitman has a rare gift for using cliches against themselves. Reitman uses potentially cliched situations in order to challenge the preconceptions of the audience. Life does not resemble a linear narrative, and Reitman doesn't try to convince us otherwise. Like a serialised novel, the film could have satisfactorily ended several times after the first hour and a half. Yet, each prospective ending was better than the next.

Some critics lamented the tone of the film, noting that it moved sporadically between seriousness and lightheartedness. This is actually one of the film's great strengths. Rather than the standard melodramatic fare, the film portrays the vicissitudes of a man balancing a potentially depressing career with the luxurious, though isolated lifestyle that it affords him. The contrast between Ryan and his provincial family nicely illustrated the tensions in his lifestyle. When you are at home everywhere, you are at home nowhere. Placelessness is his salvation, and his curse.

Clooney deserves serious Oscar consideration. Though Ryan is still at the top of his game, Clooney conveys a sense of gradual decay, or maturing--you can never quite tell which. Anna Kendrick was excellent as the young apprentice. When Natalie appears on the scene, she threatens to render Ryan's entire lifestyle obsolete. The shrewd, yet naive Natalie never lets us forget that she is the girl that moved to Omaha for a boy. We are constantly wondering if she is in over her head, but she seems to have a resilience beyond her years.

This is Reitman's third politically relevant film, and certainly his best. Just like in his earlier films Thank You For Smoking, and Juno, Reitman doesn't go out of his way to score political points. He creates an inherently political situation, and let's us judge for ourselves. That is the mark of a mature filmmaker.


Brothers (2009)

★ ★ ☆ ☆

Every now and then I see a preview that unduly prejudices me against the movie. A perfect example of this was Inglorious Basterds. I went into that movie thinking it was going to be a typical piece of extremely violent Hollywood nihilism. Basterds turned out to be one of the best films of the year. The same thing happened with Brothers. To put it bluntly, the preview was hilarious. I couldn't help but thinking it would be an awful remake of a certain recent war movie (if you've seen the preview, you know exactly which movie I'm talking about). To my surprise, the film was nowhere near as unintentionally funny, nor as simplistic as I'd imagined.

Let's start with the good. Brothers took a cliched premise, and actually made it into a thoughtful film. It did a great job of portraying the tensions endemic to second generation military families, and the hardships endured by the families of soldiers. Sam Sheppard did an admirable job portraying the war veteran father. His demon haunted past was always in the background, though he avoided the melodrama that often comes along with such roles. More surprising was Jake Gyllenhaal, who's role as the neerdowell brother was excellent. He has certainly matured as an actor in the last few years. Director Jim Sheridan did a fine job, though the highlight of the film was the work of eminent cinematographer Frederick Elmes. The cinematography in the Afghanistan scenes alone was worth the price of admission.

With all that going for it, one would think that it would be better than a two star movie. Unfortunately, there was one serious problem: Tobey Maguire. I simply could not take him seriously as a former football star, and rugged marine. Every time I look at him, I think of Terry Gilliam's description of why he cast him as the hitchhiker in Fear and Loathing: he looks like a frightened mongoose. It's no wonder that every time his pupils dilated, half the theatre erupted in laughter. Moreover, he was completely mismatched with Natalie Portman. The two had no chemistry. It felt more like she was his older sister than his wife. She is a fine actress, but was a few years too old for the role. Carey Mulligan, who played a minor role in the film, would have been a better fit. Replacing Maguire, and switching the two female roles would have greatly enhanced the quality of the film.

Overall, the film was enjoyable. There were a couple of unintended giggles, mostly during Maguire's outbursts, but everything else was done fairly well. It is a real shame that the preview gave away so many plot points. It's difficult to build suspense into a plot when the audience has already been told what happens in the first half. If you haven't yet seen the preview, skip it and just go see the movie if you get a chance. Just try not to look directly at Tobey Maguire.


Avatar: A Critical Assessment

As you may have noticed, I did not include a rating for Avatar. This is not because I have no opinion about the film, or that it has no aesthetic value. The reason that I did not rate the film is that I could not in good conscious give a single star to the most offensive movie of the decade.

Going into Avatar, I knew almost nothing about the plot. I had heard that it was an anti-war allegory about the invasion of Iraq. While this didn't bother me (in no small part since I did not support the invasion of Iraq), I expected a heavy handed political message. Unsurprisingly, we find out early in the movie that a corporation, which most certainly represents the American military industrial complex, has invaded a foreign planet in order to obtain unobtainium, a precious metal. At this point I half expected a flashing disclaimer on the screen reminding us that "It's a metaphor." So that was it, I thought. An allegory about the Iraq war. Nothing remarkable. However, it soon became obvious that the allegory was not simply about the Iraq War.

The colonized Na'vi are clearly patterned after indigenous North Americans. Had this been a movie about some of the atrocities that occurred during the colonization of North America, I could have sympathised. What makes Avatar truly insidious is it's ahistorical nature. Rather than portraying a specific instance in a Western society had wronged an indigenous population, the film created an embodiment of every Western stereotype imaginable. The futuristic corporation was a staffed by soldiers that represented the American military industrial complex, who were engaging in colonialism to exploit resources with the zeal of SS operatives. There is not one human character that elicits the least bit of sympathy without entirely rejecting Western civilization. By creating a melange of all these stereotypes, the film erased the notion of Western moral progress. Unlike Dances With Wolves, which focuses on a particular historical event, Avatar creates the impression that colonialism is endemic to Western culture. It paints Western cultures as universally rapacious, insensitive, and dependant on soul destroying technology.

The irony, of course, is that the movie was released by 20th Century Fox, and consumed between $300-500 million dollars, spent mostly on the most lavish display of technological prowess in the history of Western cinema. Using this technology, the film glorifies pseudoscience and a rejection of materialism. Many critics who dislike the message of the film were willing to overlook this since they see Avatar as an important advance in motion picture technology. In this respect, the critics are correct. But surely these same critics should be alarmed that a film that contains a full scale rejection of Western civilization could be so universally praised. Perhaps what insulates Avatar from criticism is that it is not offensive to any specific group. Many critics were offended by the Passion, since it was considered offensive to Jewish people. Of course, it is easy for critics to stand up for marginalized groups. It seems that they are willing to put up with all manners of intolerance, but only when equally applied. Only universal Western self-loathing will do.


An Education (2009)

★ ★ ★ ☆

An Education is a coming of age tale about a teenage girl in 1960s suburban London who's affair with an older man forever changes her life. The description makes it sound like yet another lame British dramedy starring Hugh Grant. Fortunately, that is not the case. An Education is a prescient reflection on the very nature of education. Jenny Mellor, a bright 16 year old girl, has a chance encounter with a man twice her age that leads to an unlikely romance. David is a mysterious figure. All we really know about him is that the only education he has received is from "the school of life." As a student who's life revolves around studying to attend Oxford, Jenny is drawn to David's worldliness. David introduces Jenny to art, foreign films, and fine cuisine. Meanwhile, her hapless parents are so charmed by David, that they even allow David to escort Jenny to Paris. While this seems implausible, the account is based on the real life experience of journalist Lynn Barber. After watching the film, I highly recommend reading Barber's own account of the events.

Despite the description, the film is not a conventional love story. It is not even clear that Jenny actually cares for Simon. Rather, as Roger Ebert pointed out, it is a love story between Jenny and the possibilities within herself. Ultimately, she gets from Simon what she really wanted: an education. In her travels with Simon, the provincial Jenny learned more about the world than she could ever have learned from Oxford alone.

Many critics, including Roger Ebert, have compared Carey Mulligan to Audrey Hepburn. This comparison is unfair to Mulligan, as no one could possibly live up to that reputation. Though it's unlikely that she'll be the next Audrey Hepburn, she certainly has a bright future in the industry. On the other end of the spectrum, Peter Sarsgaard's portrayal of David was a breakthrough role for an actor who had yet to get a shot at a significant role. He did not disappoint.

An Education is no mere period piece. Director Lone Sherfig did an admirable job of bringing 1960s London to life. Despite the fact that Western society has changed significantly since the 60s, the lessons of the film are as relevant as ever. Life experiences are equally as important as what we learn in classrooms. We live in an era where human beings have unprecedented access to artistic and cultural experiences, yet these are viewed as mere entertainment. Meanwhile, higher education is seen as a virtual prerequisite for adulthood. The real lesson of the film is that young people need to strike a balance between formal universities, and the university of life. That is our education.

The Road (2009)

★ ★ ★ ★

Of all the popular film sub-genres, there is probably none more rife with epic failures than post-apocalyptic suspense movies. One need only think back to The Postman, or more recently 2012, to see just how wrong these movies can go. Fortunately, The Road is a marked departure from the genre. The film is set in a world devastated by an unnamed catastrophe, that has turned the planet into a barren wasteland. The story is centered upon a father and son who travel the countryside, scavenging whatever they can in order to survive. A series of flashbacks explains some of the key events, though leaves much to the imagination.

Unlike most films from the genre, The Road is very minimalist in both dialogue, and action. While there are some truly frightening scenes, the real horror lies in the sheer hopelessness of the situation. The film is perhaps the best depiction of a truly Hobbesian world that I have ever seen. The struggle goes well beyond the survival of the characters. Mortensen's unnamed character tries to pass down a moral code to his son that he himself barely remembers. An immoral world is in danger of becoming an amoral world. The prevailing barbarism gives one a sense that all of the progress from the last 3000 years is vanishing before our eyes. That is what makes the film truly frightening.

This is unquestionably Viggo Morteson's best role. It will be a real shame when he is overlooked for a Best Actor nomination. After a stellar debut with The Proposition, director John Hillcoat has established himself as one of the most talented directors around. Screenwriter Joe Penhall also deserves credit for faithfully translating Cormac McCarthy's Pulitzer Prize winning novel into a compelling film experience. The Road is certainly one of the top three films of the year thus far, arguably the best. Unfortunately it is a fairly limited release, so catch it while it lasts.


Invictus (2009)

★ ★ ☆ ☆

It is hard to imagine a boring movie based on the inspiring life story of Nelson Mandela. Rather, it would have been had I not seen Invictus. I went into the movie never having seen a rugby match, so I had no idea whether or not the South African team would win the World Cup. Sadly, the tone of the movie was so thoroughly triumphant that the outcome was never in doubt. Watching the movie felt like crashing a victory party for a candidate who's been out of office for a decade. Morgan Freeman played Mandela with such a saintly demeanour, that one might think he had never been through a moment of adversity in his life. This not only detracts from the realism of the film, but it minimizes the struggle of the man, and the movement that he lead.

From a technical standpoint, there was little wrong with the film. I'm told that they did a reasonably good job of portraying the rugby match. Matt Damon and Morgan Freeman played the roles that were written for them. Unfortunately, neither role was particularly inspiring. The fault lies with screenwriter Anthony Peckham. The run time could easily have been a half hour shorter had they refrained from explaining every single event in minute detail. At one point they had Mandela explain a speech that he had given in the previous scene. Presumably Peckham doesn't think that the audience has such a short attention span that they can't remember the premise of a speech given by the protagonist in the previous scene. Rather, it seems as though he thinks the audience is unable to interpret the relatively simple events unfolding. This condescending tone is all too present in big budget Hollywood films. In trying to appeal to the lowest common denominator, they risk alienating moviegoers who don't want to be patronized. This, unfortunately, is why great blockbuster movies are so rare. Peckham has another opportunity to prove me wrong before the year is out. Hopefully his next film, Sherlock Holmes, contains a modicum of suspense. I won't hold my breath.