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Family Filmgoer

By Jane Horwitz
Washington Post / December 24, 2009

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"Sherlock Holmes" (PG-13, 2 hrs., 10 min.) -- Intensely exaggerated fight scenes, played out in graphic slow-motion or at hyperspeed, are only part of the contemporary buddy-picture irreverence that British director Guy Ritchie brings to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's beloved Victorian detective. The result is addictively entertaining. How could the dashing Robert Downey Jr. as Sherlock Holmes and Jude Law as Dr. Watson deliver anything less than biting repartee and emotional nuance in equally amusing doses? But Ritchie can get carried away, and the movie occasionally feels cluttered, overproduced and too clever by half. Fun is fun, though, and this "Sherlock Holmes" is nearly always a kick.

The original storyline pits Holmes against an evil aristocrat, Lord Blackwood (Mark Strong), who, even after he's hanged for murder, appears to be in league with the devil and in cahoots with a secret organization of powerful politicians obsessed with magic. This leads Holmes and Watson down to the docks where something fishy's afoot. On the emotional front, Holmes is not happy with Watson's plans to marry a nice governess (Kelly Reilly), and is more discombobulated when his own one-time lover, Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams), an international thief and seductress, reappears.

The most interesting aspect of this "Sherlock Holmes" is how the genius detective is portrayed as someone nearly overwhelmed at times by his own overdeveloped faculties, who self-medicates with liquor and drugs. (He also tests various sedatives on his bulldog, Gladstone. The pooch always comes out of it OK, but it won't amuse animal activists.) The film is fast, glib, funny, and approaches R territory for its violence and occasional grossness. Aside from the fisticuffs, there is gun and knifeplay, electrocution, hanging, abduction, explosions, sexual innuendo, implied nudity, dead and occasionally dissected animals, and a maggoty corpse. The film is OK for high-schoolers, but possibly too intense for some middle-schoolers.

OK FOR MANY KIDS 6 AND OLDER:

"The Princess and the Frog" G -- Disney's new animated feature is a highly enjoyable, if not wildly transporting, confection with a vivid sense of place. The characters exude humor, eccentric charm, and real emotion, as do Randy Newman's tunes. Hand-drawn in the old style, the film re-imagines "The Frog Princess," with a young African-American heroine, Tiana (voice of Anika Noni Rose), in early 20th-century New Orleans. Tiana grows up to be a gifted chef who dreams of opening a restaurant. Segregation and the limits it imposes are subtly portrayed. When international playboy Prince Naveen (Bruno Campos) hits town, he and his valet (Peter Bartlett) encounter a voodoo "shadowman," Dr. Facilier (Keith David). He turns Naveen into a frog and his valet into a faux Naveen who courts Tiana's rich friend Charlotte (Jennifer Cody). When Tiana meets the frog/prince at Charlotte's mansion, he's perched on a windowsill, all green and slimy. After she gets over the shock of hearing a frog talk, he begs her to kiss him, but the kiss turns Tiana into a frog, too. Destined for love, the amphibious duo flee to the bayou in search of a voodoo priestess who can change them back. It's scary when they're chased by hungry alligators, but they're befriended by a horn-playing gator, Louis (Michael-Leon Wooley), and a Cajun firefly, Ray (Jim Cummings). It's hinted that Tiana's father (Terrence Howard) dies in World War I. Dr. Facilier's demons are spooky. One animal dies and has a funeral. There is crude, but kid-friendly humor.

OK FOR MANY KIDS 10 AND OLDER:

"Disney's A Christmas Carol" PG -- Director Robert Zemeckis' dour rendering of Dickens' fable is mostly a showcase for actor Jim Carrey and for advances in computer animation. Some kids under 10 may need lobby breaks during spookier scenes, unleavened as they are by much humor. Zemeckis uses the same performance capture technology (shooting live actors, then overlaying them with digital animation) he used in "The Polar Express" (PG, 2004). He has added 3-D to intensify nightmarish scenes and Scrooge's dizzying flights with ghosts. Carrey's Scrooge is so stooped and surly, kids may be scared by mere close-ups of his gnarled hands. He also plays Scrooge's younger selves and the spirits who visit him. Happier moments are overshadowed by the spooky "visits." We also see a Londoner taking snuff.

PG-13s OF VARYING INTENSITY, PLUS A PG MORE FOR TEENS:

"Sherlock Holmes" (NEW) -- Intensely exaggerated fight scenes are only part of the contemporary style that British director Guy Ritchie brings to this highly entertaining take on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's beloved Victorian detective. As the film's dashing co-stars promise, Sherlock Holmes (Robert Downey Jr.) and Dr. Watson (Jude Law) deliver clever repartee and emotional nuance in equally amusing doses. But Ritchie can get carried away, and the movie occasionally feels overproduced and too cute. Fun is fun, though, and this "Sherlock Holmes" is nearly always a kick. The original storyline pits Holmes against an evil aristocrat, Lord Blackwood (Mark Strong) who, even after he's hanged for murder, appears to be directing a secret satanic organization of powerful politicians. On the emotional front, Holmes is not happy with Watson's plans to marry, and is discombobulated when his own one-time love, Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams), an international thief and seductress, reappears. The genius detective is portrayed as someone almost overwhelmed by his own overdeveloped faculties, who forgets to bathe and self-medicates with drugs and liquor. (He tests sedatives on his bulldog, which animal activists won't like.) Aside from the fisticuffs, there is gun and knifeplay, electrocution, hanging, abduction, explosions, sexual innuendo, implied nudity, dead and dissected animals, and a maggoty corpse. OK for high-schoolers, but too intense for some middle-schoolers.

"Nine" (NEW) -- Director Rob Marshall and his team have achieved something miraculous in "Nine," adapted from the 1982 Broadway musical. The musical in turn was adapted from Italian director Federico Fellini's autobiographical 1963 film "8 1/2," about a great film director who is creatively blocked, obsessed with other women, and guilty over betraying his wife. This film manages to be both a contemporary-style musical and a touching homage to Fellini himself in the way Marshall conjures moments of memory and epiphany that are truly Fellini-esque. The all-star cast performs with panache. Daniel Day-Lewis plays the director Guido Contini. Marion Cotillard is his oft-betrayed wife; Penelope Cruz his latest mistress; Nicole Kidman his actress/muse; Judi Dench his costume designer and confidante; Kate Hudson a reporter eager to seduce her interviewee; singer Stacy Ferguson, aka "Fergie," as an earthy woman from Guido's boyhood; and Sophia Loren as his mother. The film has great atmospherics -- mixing the look of 1960s Italian film and fashion with big production numbers and intimate feelings. But mostly it's a terrific portrait of an artist in middle-age sensing his mortality. "Nine" is full of steamy sexual innuendo, implied sexual situations and suggestive dancing and is less appropriate for middle schoolers. Characters also smoke and drink a lot. For high-schoolers really into the arts.

"Avatar" -- James Cameron's futuristic epic mixes live-action with digital animation in gorgeous ways that look fantastical, yet vividly alive. (Try to see it in 3-D.) The heavy-handed story and dialogue are flaws, but teens may find Cameron's parallels to human history enlightening. Set in the year 2154 on Pandora, a moon in the Alpha Centauri star system, "Avatar" echoes the way Europeans subjugated and killed native peoples in Africa and the Americas. The imaginary Na'vi on Pandora are nearly-naked (but with no "naughty bits" visible) bluish humanoids with tails who bond spiritually with nature. Jake (Sam Worthington) is a former Marine whose legs are paralyzed. He goes to Pandora to work for Grace (Sigourney Weaver), a scientist who lets Sam walk again by transferring his consciousness into a Na'vi body -- his avatar -- so he can mingle with the Na'vi. Meanwhile, a mercenary (Stephen Lang), in charge of security for a mining firm, is eager to start killing Na'vi to get at Pandora's minerals. On Sam's first outing as an avatar, a Na'vi warrior, Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) rescues him from wolflike creatures. A romance blossoms. When the violence starts, Sam switches sides to help the Na'vi. There is intense, but fairly bloodless violence, with choppers, missiles, machine guns, killer robots, arrows and spears. There is an implied sexual tryst, remarks that recall racial slurs, and some profanity. OK for most teens.

"Did You Hear About the Morgans?" -- Hugh Grant's facility with verbal wit keeps this unwieldy romantic comedy afloat -- barely. Sam Elliott and Mary Steenburgen also help as a gun-toting, rodeo-loving Wyoming couple. But nothing quite saves "Did You Hear About the Morgans?" from its sloppy predictability or co-star Sarah Jessica Parker's irritating performance. Teens may still glean enjoyment from the verbal sparring and slapstick. Paul Morgan (Grant), a lawyer, and Meryl Morgan (Parker), a Manhattan real estate agent, are separated because Paul cheated. Then they witness a murder, so U.S. marshals relocate the citified Morgans to Wyoming while the killer is at large. Their hosts are rustic U.S. Marshal Clay Wheeler (Elliott) and his wife Emma (Steenburgen). There is much mild sexual innuendo, brief nongraphic violence, mild profanity, smoking, and a potentially threatening bear.

"The Young Victoria" PG (LIMITED RELEASE) -- Teens with a historical bent will revel in this opulent, character-rich drama. It traces Queen Victoria's earliest years as Britain's sovereign, shows her being manipulated by ambitious aristocrats, and falling in love with Albert, her royal European cousin, whom she married. The film is perhaps a bit too much in awe of monarchies, and its many strands of palace intrigue get narratively tangled. Still, Emily Blunt as Victoria and Rupert Friend as Albert make a likable and emotionally nuanced couple, trying to push against rigid tradition. There is a slightly steamy wedding-night scene that is never explicit, a nonlethal shooting, mild profanity and drinking.

"Invictus" -- This reverent, ponderous docudrama, directed by Clint Eastwood, is more good intentions than good art, but it could interest teens as a history-and-sports saga. It chronicles how Nelson Mandela (Morgan Freeman), as the new president of South Africa in the post-apartheid 1990s, inspires the captain of South Africa's rugby team, Francois Pienaar (an uncharacteristically flat Matt Damon), to rally his players to victory in the 1995 Rugby World Cup. Since rugby was a sport favored by white South Africans, Mandela wanted to show his support as a way of uniting the populace. The title is from the poem by William Ernest Henley, which gave Mandela solace when he was a political prisoner. It ends with "I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul." The rugby scenes are rough and tumble. There is some profanity, implied racism and threats of violence. OK for teens.

"The Twilight Saga: New Moon" -- The longing drags on in this dark, snoozy adaptation of the second book in Stephenie Meyer's quartet. High-school senior Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart) goes into a deep melancholy after the vampire she loves, Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson), leaves. Always a gent, he wants to protect and distance her from his world, though she wants to be part of it. Bella's friend Jacob (Taylor Lautner) reveals that he and his Native American tribe can morph into werewolves, who despise vampires, though they have a treaty with the Cullens. Whenever Bella does anything risky, such as jump off a cliff into the ocean, Edward appears to her, so she takes more chances. "New Moon" is full of subtle sexual innuendo, but shows no more than a desire-filled kiss. The mayhem includes an implied neck-snap beheading, and a few bloody gashes, but most fights between the werewolves and vampires are loud, fast and nongraphic. There are subtle suicide references. OK for teens.

"The Blind Side" -- One could dismiss "The Blind Side" as a phony feel-good movie, but it is fact-based, taken from Michael Lewis' book, "The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game." A Memphis decorator, Leigh Anne Tuohy (Sandra Bullock as a likable steamroller), takes under her wing a homeless teen, Michael Oher (Quinton Aaron), a charity case who is flunking out of her kids' private Christian school. Leigh Anne and Sean Tuohy (country singer Tim McGraw) become Michael's guardians and set him on a not-always-easy path to football and college. (Oher now plays for the Baltimore Ravens.) Director John Lee Hancock lays it on a little thick, but "The Blind Side" is thoroughly engaging and will hold many teens rapt. There is mildly crude language, overt and implied racial slurs, nonlethal violence, drinking, drug references, a car crash and a gently implied marital sexual situation.

R's:

"It's Complicated" (NEW) -- Adults behave badly and bawdily to riotous effect in "It's Complicated," a mildish R that will entertain sophisticated high-schoolers with little harm. Writer/director Nancy Meyers' flawed-but-fun comedy imagines a divorced woman, Jane (Meryl Streep), owner of an upscale bakery in Santa Barbara, starting an impetuous affair with her reprobate ex-husband, Jake (Alec Baldwin), who is tired of his much younger second wife (Lake Bell). This happens just as Jane seems to be regaining balance in her life, and as the nice architect Adam (Steve Martin) who's doing the addition on her house is showing a romantic interest. She confesses her mischief to friends (including Rita Wilson and Mary Kay Place) and scandalizes her grown children and most amusingly her son-in-law, Harley (John Krasinski). Apart from Harley, the grown kids are bland and unconvincing as Jane's and Jake's offspring. The film includes several nongraphic sexual situations, backview nudity, marijuana use, drinking, occasional profanity and an adultery theme.

"Up in the Air" -- High-schoolers with a taste for smart cinema will be taken with everything about this dramatic comedy, from its crystalline visuals to its laserlike dialogue. George Clooney aces the tragicomic role of Ryan Bingham, who travels the country firing people because their bosses are afraid to do it. Ryan is obsessed with accumulating air miles and avoiding human commitment. Then things happen: He falls for Alex (Vera Farmiga), a female freqent flyer; his boss (Jason Bateman) hires a young efficiency expert (Anna Kendrick), who goes on the road with Ryan, making him feel paternal; and Ryan's sister (Amy Morton) pulls him into family issues. Some of the people who get fired are nonactors who really lost their jobs and the scenes are very poignant. There are implied sexual liaisons, backview nudity, some strong profanity and crude language, a suicide theme and drinking. OK for high-schoolers.