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The last of the last.

A Single Man. The Christmas movie for holiday depressives (who after all deserve one, too), an adaptation of the Christopher Isherwood novel detailing the planned last day of a homosexual English professor grieving his dead lover, anally-compulsively tying up loose ends, saying his guarded goodbyes, practicing the proper posture to shoot himself in bed, laying out his burial attire with the helpful note, “Tie in a Windsor knot.” Not to be confused, please, with A Serious Man despite the bespectacled academic protagonist (an exquisitely tortured Colin Firth) and the Sixties setting, the ongoing Cuban Missile Crisis providing another incentive to end it all. Fashion “guru” Tom Ford, in his directing debut, sees to it that the dumps are très chic, almost to be envied and emulated. He demonstrates convincingly a photographic eye to go along with a curatorial taste in the period, although the total ambience resembles that of a retro pictorial in Harper’s Bazaar rather than an accurate depiction of a gloomy Brit in sunny So-Cal during the Kennedy Era. And he controls the color saturation of his imagery as if through an IV, maintaining gray drained faded tones for the present tense, pedantically contrasted with florid flushed flashbacks; and any passing sensory sensation in the faded present, any flicker of life, any tremor of reanimation, any stir of passion, will bring a sudden surge of saturation. It’s a definite idea, even if a transparent one.

Nine. Former choreographer Rob Marshall’s third directorial effort, a restaging of the Broadway musical based on Fellini’s . Not to be confused with 9, luckily no longer in circulation. In essence the filmmaker has taken an intensely personal film (so named as it was Fellini’s eighth and a half opus, counting three collaborations as halves) and depersonalized it, trivialized it, into nostalgic cinephilia circa the mid-Sixties and secondarily into generic Italophilia, the cultural divide highlighted by a principal cast of non-Italians, Daniel Day-Lewis as the Fellini figure, Penelope Cruz, Marion Cotillard, Nicole Kidman, Kate Hudson, Judi Dench, pop singer Fergie, excepting only Sophia Loren, not all of them pretending to be Italians. Each gets to perform at least one would-be showstopper. Cruz (dubbed? — it scarcely matters in her scanties) and Fergie (whom I at last understand is not one and the same as Sarah Ferguson) come closest to attainment of that goal, and Cotillard outside of her would-be showstopper attains a loftier goal of tangible humanity. Somehow the notion of a Broadway show of this origin seems less objectionable because it’s in a different medium and not in direct competition, as well as because I had therefore had no prior awareness of it nor of any of the songs in it. Dion Beebe’s rich ripe cinematography is commendable on its own merits when not dipping into directly competitive black-and-white.

Broken Embraces. Almodóvar, as is his wont, gives you splatters and splashes, swatches and swaths, of vibrant color, and he gives you the occasional rock-you-on-your-heels image (a teardrop on a ripe tomato, lovers writhing within a white-sheet cocoon), and he gives you deliberately over-the-top domestic melodrama played steadfastly straight: a blind filmmaker (shades of Woody Allen’s Hollywood Ending, albeit darker shades), a kept woman turned movie starlet, a manipulative millionaire, his conniving gay son, etc. He doesn’t, however, give you much to believe in, except in this instance the undoubted radiance of Penelope Cruz (once more), who in her mid-thirties would appear to have yet done nothing surgically to disfigure herself. It’s a sad comment on our times that that’s worthy of comment about an actress of her age.

The Young Victoria. And the young Albert. (Psst, wanna see the Queen in her teddies?) The story of the first occupant of the spanking new Buckingham Palace is a story of protofeminist liberation — “Even a palace can be a prison” — and a testament to the capacity of British thespians, specifically Emily Blunt, Rupert Friend, Paul Bettany, Miranda Richardson, Mark Strong, Harriet Walter, Jim Broadbent, among others, to play any dry and droning history lesson as if it were Shakespeare. (Don’t look to Miss Blunt to do what Dame Judi Dench didn’t do in Mrs. Brown, speak the Queen’s English as a second language. Herr feerst vass Churman.) The rather bland love story ultimately nudges out the pungent family relations, and the only goose bumps come courtesy of Handel and high volume.

Sherlock Holmes. Horrors! A Sherlock Holmes for the 21st Century, a man of action, a martial artist, more of a 19th-century James Bond or alternatively an urban Wild Wild West-erner, with a pretty-boy Dr. Watson (Jude Law) and a megalomaniacal archenemy (Mark Strong) who foretells “a journey that will twist the very fabric of nature,” not to mention the re-colonization of America. The worst of it, worse than the hero’s unseemly number of brushes with death or his embarrassing gullibility to feminine wiles, worse even than the blanketing darkness and the teeth-rattling sound and music imposed by director Guy Ritchie, is the insouciance of Robert Downey, Jr. (never mind his bad accent) in the title role. In a rare bow to discretion, he at least lays off the cocaine.

Did You Hear about the Morgans? Did you hear about Did You Hear about the Morgans?? Well, it’s not as bad as you may have heard. The premise of a splitsville Manhattan couple whisked away together to wild, wild Wyoming in the witness protection program is no worse than that of many a screwball comedy of the Golden Age. Hugh Grant and Sarah Jessica Parker as the fishes out of water are simply staying limber without really stretching themselves; and their contrasting styles, ingratiating vs. grating, yield a semblance of discord. Grant’s reeking insincerity is rather unbecoming in the role of a marital penitent and supplicant, but the increasing creases in his face add poignance even to insincerity, not only to ingratiation. Filmmaker Marc Lawrence, who with Two Weeks Notice and Music and Lyrics has never directed in absence of Grant, always cares enough about the work to employ a topflight cinematographer. This one, Florian Ballhaus, applies a high shine.

It’s Complicated. The Nancy Meyers comedy with Meryl Streep and Alec Baldwin and Steve Martin is the one thing I am lacking. Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel does not look to be a thing. It looks to be nothing.

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Josh Board Dec. 29, 2009 @ 12:22 a.m.

Maybe Nine will inspire some to seek out Fellini's wonderfully underrated 8 1/2.


Johann_Nick_vonStone Jan. 20, 2010 @ 6:30 p.m.

"Maybe Nine will inspire some to seek out Fellini's wonderfully underrated 8 1/2."

Did he really mean "underrated"? You've got to be the original inspiration for the phrase "joshing", right? I mean - hows about a little respect for history, fella?! This Fellini was almost instantly branded a masterpiece in all quarters 'cross the planet in 1963... maybe the constipated 'Films in Review' didn't praise it that highly -a few others at the time- but nearly all and sundry praise it now as such.


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