Originally I had wanted to do separate, full-length reviews for each of these movies. But the Christmas rush didn't allow that and, by the time I'd write them all, we'd be well into the new year. So I'm going to publish short thoughts on these four new releases and that should bring us up to date for the end of 2009. Once the schedule slows down a bit, I'll have some more time. Look for my Best of 2009 list later this week.
Avatar: James Cameron has proved that he should not be doubted. Since winning the Oscar for “Titanic,” which is still the highest-grossing film of all time, the director has stated that his next film would push the limits of special effects technology. He wasn’t kidding—with a gorgeously rendered new world for his computer generated characters to play in, Cameron has created the most awesome big screen spectacle since “Lord of the Rings.” Sam Worthington (“Terminator Salvation”) plays a crippled Marine who controls the body of a Na’Vi—the 10 foot tall inhabitants of Pandora, a mystical planet housing a much-desired natural resource. Forget that the story is derivative, patching together the best of “Dances with Wolves,” “John Carter of Mars” and Cameron’s own “Aliens.” The story is just an excuse to get the avatars out and running in Pandora, an exquisitely detailed environment that Cameron and his special effects crews bring to life with astonishing skill. Worthington, along with cast members Sigourney Weaver and Zoe Saldana (“Star Trek”), gives a fine performance, but Cameron knows that audiences are showing up for the special effects. Every penny of the film’s rumored $300 million price tag is up there on the screen, from the beautiful foliage of Pandora to the graceful and surprisingly human Na’Vi, which represent the best work of motion capture technology that I’ve ever seen. There are moments of astonishing beauty, such as Worthington and Saldana’s late night romp through a bioluminescent forest and moments of sheer adrenaline, such as the 40-minute war that ends the film. Yes, the story is familiar, the dialogue clunky and the characterizations thin. Cameron has not made a great film. But he has made one heck of a movie and one of the most spectacular big screen spectacles of the decade. It’s an experience to be taken in on the biggest screen possible.
It’s Complicated: Hollywood is out of boy-meets-girl stories. Now it’s on to boy--divorces-girl-for-younger-girl-and-cheats-on-younger-girl-with-original-girl-while-said-girl-dates-sweet-guy stories. Oddly enough, the formula kind of works in director Nancy Meyers (“Something’s Gotta Give”) latest romantic comedy, which features Meryl Streep and Alec Baldwn as former spouses who find old flames reigniting during their son’s college graduation; Steve Martin is the sweet guy caught in the middle. Baldwin, drawing on his “30 Rock” persona, brings the funny but it’s Streep who brings the heart, taking a role that could have been played strictly for cuteness sake and bringing a surprising depth, vitality and even sexiness to the part. Meyer wisely sidesteps making this a simple bedroom farce and allows her characters to explore their feelings and discover the implications of their actions, although she never seems to address the inherent selfishness present in both of them. The film is funny and surprisingly intelligent, but its morality is muddled, excusing adultery as a way to “find oneself” and short-changing the innocents affected by the main characters.
Up in the Air: Jason Reitman’s third film, following “Thank You for Smoking” and “Juno” is thought by many to be the film of the year. George Clooney plays Ryan Binghman, a smooth-talking “termination facilitator” who jets around the country firing other companies’ employees and avoiding his own connections until he meets up with a woman who challenges his notions (Vera Farmiga) and another who challenges his own job (newcomer Anna Kendrick). The film is a portrait of our technology obsessed, isolated culture and a fitting portrait of the economic times we live in and Reitman gets many big laughs out of Ryan’s job. But he’s more successful at the burgeoning romance and the implications it has on Ryan’s personal philosophies…the film finds its legs halfway through and begins to show a tender story of human connections and relationships. Although its message—no man is an island—is obvious, Reitman’s skilled directorial talents, Clooney’s fantastic performance and a script that respects its characters enough to let them surprise us keeps it from being cliché, ham-handed or boring. This is one of the year’s best films.
Sherlock Holmes: Toss away your deerstalker cap and don’t even think of uttering the word “elementary”: this is not the Holmes you grew up with. That is, unless you’ve read Arthur Conan Doyle’s actual stories, which portrayed the great detective not as a stuffy intellectual but as a brilliant mess of a man, skilled in martial arts and dabbling in recreational “medicines.” Robert Downey Jr. brings that Holmes to life with delicious wit and charm, creating a detective who comes across as an 1800s mix of Captain Jack Sparrow and Dr. House. Jude Law is a perfectly straight-laced comedic foil as Holmes’ companion Watson and their banter makes this film worth a look; the story focuses on the impending breakup of the team as Watson prepares to get married. Rachel McAdams also shows up as a love interest, although the chemistry between Holmes and Watson sometimes makes one wonder if women are just getting in the way. Director Guy Ritchie stages some fun action sequences and there’s a mystery for the two to solve, although it’s admittedly not as much fun as watching them quarrel. The take is more “Lethal Weapon” than “Hound of the Baskervilles,” but the chemistry between Downey and Law is more than enough to jump start what could be an enjoyable franchise.