Sherlock Holmes

After my experience with the negative impact of high expectations for The Hurt Locker, I now have a perfect example of the opposite… the positive impact of low expectations for the delightful Sherlock Holmes.

I’d written this one off as a rental, if that, based on my low opinion of director Guy Ritchie and less than stellar reviews. But when my wife and I wanted a nice cinematic diversion the other night and didn’t want to travel across the county to find it, Sherlock Holmes emerged as the best candidate (I promptly vetoed Leap Year when that possibility came up).

I was a big Sherlock Holmes fan during junior high and high school, though I haven’t given him much thought since then. But my inner 14-year-old bristled at the thought of Ritchie turning the beloved Holmes into a slow-mo kung-fu fighter, as the trailer suggested. Why modernize and make hip something decidedly (and wonderfully) old-fashioned?

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Avatar

I’m having a hard time deciding exactly how I feel about Avatar.

On the one hand, it has a shopworn plot, clunky dialogue, cardboard villains and heavy-handed messages about the environment and military imperialism. But on the other hand, it creates and inhabits an entirely new world to a degree I’ve never quite experienced before in a movie. The cutting-edge special effects bring to vivid life an entire ecosystem brimming with the fantastic imaginings of its creator.

That creator, of course, is James Cameron, the director of such enduring classics as The Terminator, Aliens, Terminator 2: Judgment Day and Titanic. Cameron has spent many of the 12 years since Titanic won a crate full of Oscars and set the all-time box office record working on Avatar, specifically on the motion capture technology that allows flesh-and-blood actors to bring digital characters to life in a way that makes Lord of the Rings‘ Gollum look like a sock puppet.

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The Princess and the Frog

Disney’s latest animated gem, The Princess and the Frog, has quite a burden on its shoulders. In addition to being the studio’s first hand-drawn film in 6 years, it’s the first new “princess” movie since Mulan in 1998 (though I still don’t know why they count Mulan as a princess, meaning it’s the first true princess movie since 1995’s Pocohontas). And of course the film features the first Black princess in Disney history, a milestone so late in coming that the generation of kids watching today probably won’t even notice.

Still, it’s touching to think of all the little girls out there, their rooms littered with Belle, Ariel and Jasmine merchandise, who for the first time will see a princess onscreen who looks like them.

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Up in the Air

A couple of movies came to mind after I watched writer/director Jason Reitman’s wonderful Up in the Air. The first was Jerry Maguire, another funny drama about a man very comfortable in his career who faces an existential crisis. That film, like this one, features a display of movie star acting that will never get the acclaim heaped on showier method roles but is every bit as deserving.

The second film was Broadcast News, James L. Brooks’ classic about three TV journalists and their professional and romantic entanglements. It’s not so much plot or technique that invited the comparison but an overall tone of realism and respect, a sense that these are movies made by adults for adults, a Hollywood rarity.

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The Blind Side

The Blind Side depicts one of those true stories about which people say “if this were made into a movie, nobody would believe it.” Inner city orphan Michael Oher was taken off the streets by a rich Memphis couple and introduced to academics and football, showing such talent at the latter that he was heavily recruited by the country’s top colleges. This year he was drafted in the first round by the Baltimore Ravens and has started every game at tackle.

You’d think this is the sort of thing that simply requires a director to point the camera at the actors, let them tell the story and stay out of the way. But that underestimates what a nice job writer/director John Lee Hancock has done (he’s developed a knack for spinning fine films out of real life sports fairy tales, having previously directed Dennis Quaid in The Rookie).

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Fantastic Mr. Fox

I’m intrigued by the critical reception to Wes Anderson’s adaptation of Roald Dahl’s children’s novel, Fantastic Mr. Fox. It currently sits at 92% on the Rotten Tomatoes scale, with 100% of the ‘Cream of the Crop’ critics reviewing it positively. It is by far the best-reviewed film of Anderson’s career.

I don’t disagree with those critics — on the contrary, I love the film — but I wonder why it’s this film and not, say, Rushmore or The Royal Tenenbaums that has garnered such praise. Is it because of a built-in forgiveness toward quality animated films or children’s films that elevates any of them that are different and better than the norm?

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An Education

aneducationAn Education is one of those simple, small, lovely movies that get a lot of critical acclaim upon release but aren’t generally remembered years later. There is nothing groundbreaking here, just a smart script, understated direction and a host of strong performances all in the service of a charming coming-of-age tale. If it seems like I’m damning the film with faint praise, well, I guess I am… I’m trying to work out why a film that does so many things right hasn’t really resonated with me more.

The script was adapted from Lynn Barber’s memoir by Nick Hornby, one of my favorite authors, and he’s on his way to a Best Screenplay Oscar nomination — deservedly so. The dialogue is witty without feeling written, the characters extremely well-drawn and three-dimensional. For a film with little in the way of driving action, it has a definite sense of pace and suspense.

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