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On Movies: Just in time for Christmas

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 25, 2009 - For at least a decade, the seven days that begin with Christmas and end on New Year’s Eve have been the highest-grossing week of the year at the movie box office. And this year there is a kind of perfect snowstorm of commercial convergences: Christmas Day also falls on a Friday, when movies normally open in anticipation of the weekend. So four major films are opening on Dec. 25. I’ve seen three of them. (The fourth is “It’s Complicated,” a Nancy Meyers romantic comedy with Meryl Streep and Alec Baldwin playing a divorced couple who get back together again. I’m told it includes lots of middle-aged canoodling. I’m for that.)

"Sherlock Holmes"

Tenminutes into this hyper-energetic flick, having watched an unshaven hipster Sherlock Holmes (Robert Downey Jr.) turn a flip and deliver a dozen karate chops, I decided I had two choices. Either walk out in protest, or pretend the movie was called "Shamrock Jones" and was about a wild and crazy guy and his gun slinging buddy Doc Watson, a movie set in the 19th century but featuring two late 20th century British streetpunks.

I chose the latter course, and found Guy Ritchie's "Sherlock Holmes" to be a generally enjoyable merry-go-round of dastardly doings. The plot revolves around an absolutely absurd attempt by a master of evil to rule the world.

Ritchie, best known for a movie called "Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels" - or is he best known as the now-estranged husband of Madonna? - fills the movie with breathless chases down dark alleys and along ominous passageways, daring last-second rescues and bloody gunplay.

Although Sherlock, goaded by the good doctor (Jude Law), does from time to time think his way aloud through a problem (in an apparently cocaine-fueled frenzy), the emphasis is on action, not ratiocination.

Downey is, as usual, entertaining to watch and, as long as you realize that the movie has little to do with those famous stories by Arthur Conan Doyle other than the names of the main characters, who include a couple of iconic villains, you'll probably get a boot out of it.

“The Young Victoria”

If you are looking for a decent costume drama for the holidays, “The Young Victoria,” while not as good as, for example, the 1998 Cate Blanchett “Elizabeth,” will fill the bill.

Emily Blunt (“The Devil Wears Prada”) plays Victoria in her teens and 20s, insisting that she be named queen despite her youth and then taking firm control. Blunt combines charm with resolve as Victoria outwits those who think they can control her. Most memorably, though, “The Young Victoria” is a love story between Victoria and her cousin Prince Albert. The couple’s flirtations, courtship and passionate early days of marriage are shown with tenderness and an appreciation for the intelligence and judgment of these two far-from-ordinary people.

“Nine”

Call me old fashioned, but the first thing I expect from a musical is good music. But “Nine,” the much-acclaimed singing-and-dancing adaptation of Federico Fellini’s semi-autobiographical “8 1/2,” doesn’t contain one memorable song.

The dance routines are, well, routine, except for a long one by the immensely talented, immensely beautiful Penelope Cruz that is as inappropriately vulgar as something you might see on a slow afternoon at an East Side strip club. And Daniel Day-Lewis, as an artistically blocked Italian movie director obsessed with women, religion and guilt, is more North Sea than Mediterranean in temperament, a poor choice to play a role originated by the great Marcello Mastroianni.

Occasionally, director Rob Marshall will switch from color to black and white and give us an imitation of a passage from “8 1/2,” as in his echo of a famous scene with young boys paying to watch a woman in rags dance on the beach. Marshall’s interpretation, with singer Fergie going through the motions, is just too nice – it simply does not convey the rich combination of poverty, blinding lust and intense Catholic guilt that flowed forth from the original. This would have been the time to invoke a cheap strip club.

According to the Rotten Tomatoes Website, critics are about 50-50 on this movie. Count me among those whose thumbs point straight down.

Harper Barnes,  the author of Never Been A Time: The 1917 Race Riot That Sparked The Civil Rights Movement, has also been a long-time reviewer of movies.

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