(*homocinematically inclined)

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Reel Thoughts: Nine + 3

To borrow from the old song, “Nine is the loneliest number that you’ll ever know.” At least that’s what you’ll glean from watching Daniel Day-Lewis as the most isolated and depressed Italian film director of all time in Nine. Oh, sure, he’s a serial womanizer, but it doesn’t seem to give him much pleasure.

That is the great disappointment of Rob Marshall’s Nine. Based on the classic Fellini film 8 ½ and the rousing Maury Yeston-Arthur Kopit Broadway musical, Marshall’s version is a well-made downer, all hangover and no party. It’s definitely not heeding its own call to “Be Italian,” even if Fergie, as an earthy whore, momentarily brings the film to life with that number.

Day-Lewis plays beloved Italian film director Guido Contini (a fact you’ll never forget; half the lyrics are people repeating his name), a narcissist in artistic crisis. He is set to start his new film, but he hasn’t even written it. It is to star his muse, Claudia, played as a gorgeous blank by Nicole Kidman, but she won’t agree to it. In the midst of an antagonistic press conference, Guido flees to a spa, and he entreats his sexy mistress Carla (Penélope Cruz, channeling her Maria Elena role from Vicky Cristina Barcelona), to join him.

Unfortunately, his long-suffering wife Luisa (a standout Marion Cotillard) shows up as well. Despite good advice from his faithful costumer Lilli (Judi Dench), Guido messes up royally, retreating into a world of fantasies and memories that include a boyhood encounter with Fergie’s prostitute, visions of Sophia Loren as his mother and a fun but disconnected dance number featuring Kate Hudson as an American magazine writer.

The musical onstage is vibrant and entertaining, but Marshall has created something different, a dour psychological production that diminishes its source material. Nine is a polished piece of work, with moments of exhilaration and great performances from the entire cast, but it is not a film you’ll want to see again — never a good sign with a musical.

Marshall’s work on Chicago almost single-handedly revived the movie musical, but Nine threatens to put it back into hibernation.

Guy Ritchie is back in fighting shape with Sherlock Holmes, a fun, witty and exciting retelling of the classic story. Don’t let the “for-the-idiots” trailer fool you: it’s not a dumbed-down, sexed-up howler. Robert Downey Jr. cements his place as the go-to guy for offbeat heroes, and Jude Law radiates a confident sexiness as Watson.

The homoerotic undercurrent — Watson’s moving out and getting married and Holmes is pissed off — makes Rachel McAdams’ character a lovely distraction. I love McAdams, but she’s too lightweight as Holmes’ con-woman girlfriend, Irene Adler. Perhaps Rachel Weiss or Cate Blanchett could have added some heft.

The story is an entertaining tale of a secret society and the supernatural in Victorian England. The production design is exquisite and the film packs a lot of action. Sherlock Holmes is the most fun you’ll have this holiday!

Jason Reitman, director of Juno and Thank You for Smoking, seems incapable of making a bad movie. His latest, Up in the Air, is pretty great, and features George Clooney’s sexiest, most vulnerable performances in years.

Vera Farmiga is smart, sexy and in control as Alex, the first woman to break through the defenses of Clooney's Ryan Bingham. Both are frequent flyer point junkies who get turned on by comparing rewards program cards.

Ryan is a professional firer — he flies the country laying off people. When he’s paired with hotshot Cornell grad Natalie (Anna Kendrick), who’s devised a way to fire people via teleconference, he’s in danger of losing the thing he loves most in the world — unlimited travel.

Reitman’s film punctures Ryan’s perfect but empty existence in the most adult, intelligent way. Up in the Air is up with the best films of the year.

Invictus is the latest film by Clint Eastwood, featuring a terrific performance by Morgan Freeman as Nelson Mandela. It is also a generic inspirational sports story that will mostly appeal to Phoenix Storm fans.

Rugby is a hard sport to capture on film, but since Mandela used the maligned apartheid-connected Springboks rugby team to bring South Africans together, it’s a necessary element. Freeman captures Mandela’s humane essence, and costar Matt Damon manages a pretty good South African accent.

However, the story, while based in fact, has such a tired familiarity, I doubt you’ll find yourself invigorated by Invictus.

UPDATE: Now available from Up in the Air on DVD and Blu-ray; Sherlock Holmes on DVD and Blu-ray, Nine on DVD and Blu-ray and Invictus on DVD and Blu-ray.

Review by Neil Cohen, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and Phoenix's Echo Magazine.

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