Reviews in Short

By Cole Smithey

Nine. If a Broadway musical loosely based on Federico Fellini’s 1963 deconstructionist masterpiece "8 1/2" sounds like a recipe for disaster, it is. Where "8 1/2" captured the zeitgeist of ’60s Italian tedium, "Nine" is a self-conscious, wrongheaded attempt at riding Fellini’s coattails with musical numbers that fawn over every Italian cultural touchstone satirized by the original. "Nine" is built around Daniel Day-Lewis’ knock-off of Marcello Mastroianni’s Guido Anselmi (here the Fellini alter-ego is named Guido Contini). The muses in Guido’s rudderless life each get a chance to sing and dance their reason for existence, namely their love of Guido. As Guido’s haughty mother, Sophia Loren strikes museum-quality poses, Stacy Ferguson (AKA Fergie) goes wild as a half-remembered, half-dressed nymphomaniac from Guido’s childhood. Penelope Cruz, Nicole Kidman and Marion Cotillard attempt to out-hot one another in steamy routines filmed with clinical precision. By trying to reconstitute the essence of Fellini during a crucial period of artistic anxiety, the writers of "Nine" have missed the point entirely. Very sad. Rated PG-13. 118 mins. (C)

It’s Complicated. No one cries like Meryl Streep. And no one can make you laugh harder when she’s pumping out tears than the guileless icon who has defied Hollywood’s inclination for putting actresses out to pasture at 40. Streep plays Jane Adler, a 50-something owner of a Santa Barbara bakery shop, who bumps into her ex-husband Jake (Alec Baldwin) at a party with his much younger second wife, Agnes (Lake Bell). But the 10 years since their 17-year marriage ended hasn’t extinguished the torch of desire Jake still carries for Jane. With her youngest daughter going off to college and the other preparing for marriage, Jane’s defenses are down. So when busybody Jake makes his move on Jane, cheating on his wife with his ex, she’s bound to tumble, at least for a while. Though overweight, Baldwin’s happily rotund Jake easily outpaces the dopey charms of Jane’s romantically famished architect Adam (Steve Martin). Writer/director Nancy Myers ("What Women Want") couldn’t create a more white-bread vision of upper class ennui if she tried, but Baldwin and Streep rise above their one-dimensional roles. "It’s Complicated" is a middle-aged romantic comedy that accomplishes what it sets out to do. Older people need to laugh at dumb stuff too. Rated R. 114 mins. (B-)

Up in the Air. George Clooney’s intentionally ambiguous character Ryan Bingham is a poster boy for America’s lack of ethical direction in this thought-provoking satire about the nation’s unemployment epidemic. Unfortunately, this film fails to swing its hammer hard enough. Smarmy Ryan loves his city-hopping lifestyle, collecting frequent flyer miles en route to his paid gigs as a motivational speaker with a cynical message. He also works as the No. 1 hatchet man for an outsourcing company that fires employees for big companies. Ryan happily slips into a low-key affair with Alex (Vera Farmiga), a flight attendant who shares his shallow worldview, at least on the surface. A snag appears in the form of upstart corporate spitfire Natalie (Anna Kendrick), whose attempt at making Ryan’s job obsolete with the use of video conferencing transforms her into Ryan’s personal traveling trainee. The movie finds its level when ever director Jason Reitman’s camera depicts the outspoken responses of people being fired from jobs where they’ve toiled for years. The film seems to say, "It’s OK that we’re all losing our jobs, because it will invariably lead us to our own individual bliss." Rated R. 98 mins. (B)

Avatar. The most expensive film ever made leaves much to be desired. Paralyzed from the waist down, former Marine Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) voices several movies worth of telldon’t-show narration for the benefit of audiences who like being read to when they watch a movie. With no oil resources left on Earth, a battalion of outsourced military bozos have set up camp on the moon "Pandora" with a group of optimistic scientists in order to incite a tribe of native aliens called the Na’vi. They want to drive the Na’vi out of their giant tree home to extract an energy-producing mineral called Unobtainium (yes, really). Jake rests in a coffin-like bed, from which he projects a walking-talking avatar in the form of a Na’vi creature. Jake’s mission is to earn the trust of the blueskinned Na’vi and report back to the colonizing military forces. For an ostensibly anti-imperialist war movie written in all caps and splashed with every primary color in the Maxfield Parish color wheel, "Avatar" ends up being a toothless rollercoaster of eye candy that sexes up war, the very thing it professes to detest. Rated PG-13. 160 mins. (B-)

The Blind Side. If ever Sandra Bullock had Oscar nomination potential, it comes in her canny performance as a Southern Republican with a heart of gold. Bullock nails the Memphis accent and attitude of her character, Leigh Anne Tuoughy, a white family woman of privilege who takes African-American Michael Oher (Quinton Aaron), an over-sized high school senior athlete from a broken home in the ghetto, into her home. With the help of her family and a few friends, Leigh Anne gives Michael the academic and home life he needs to be a successful college football player. "The Blind Side" expresses a racially and emotionally charged portrait of coded Southern mannerisms and passive aggressive politeness. Although it’s ostensibly a sports movie, it’s also a character study of how families take care of one another. Rated PG-13. 128 mins. (B)

Invictus. Morgan Freeman’s brilliant performance as Nelson Mandela is the kind of transformation that Academy Award members aggressively reward come Oscar season. Whether or not they’ll be as impressed with Anthony Peckham’s airy adaptation of John Carlin’s book "Playing the Enemy" is questionable. The story is set in 1995, during the early days of Mandela’s presidency, after he served 27 years in prison. Settling into his office, Mandela makes a point to meet with a black nationalist group that has voted to abolish the Springboks, South Africa’s popular Afrikaner rugby team. With calm resolve, Mandela explains to a crowd of apartheid victims that it is better to lead by example than to mimic their former oppressors. Viewing the Springboks as an ideal tool for promoting multiracial unity, Mandela invites the team’s level-headed Afrikaner team captain Francois (Matt Damon) for tea. There, Mandela plants seeds of encouragement about Francois leading his team to World Cup victory. Mandela mentions William Ernest Henely’s poem "Invictus" to Francois as a fount of inspiration that kept him sane in prison. "Invictus" is a beautiful snapshot-biopic that lacks dramatic significance in its subplots. Still, the film makes its points by way of director Clint Eastwood’s usual assured direction and Freeman’s considerable portrayal. Rated PG-13. 134 mins. (B )

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