ARGO (R) Ben Affleck’s career revival continues with his best directing effort yet, despite his snub by the Academy. Revealing the once classified story of how the CIA rescued six American hostages in the midst of the Iranian Revolution, Golden Globe winner and Academy Award nominee Argo is both an intriguing modern history lesson, a compelling, old-fashioned Hollywood thriller and a strong contender for Best Picture. Affleck has collected one hell of a cast—John Goodman, Academy Award nominee Alan Arkin, Bryan Cranston, Kyle Chandler, Victor Garber, Scoot McNairy, Chris Messina and many more recognizable faces—but its greatness is a sum of all parts—directing, writing (by first-time scripter and newly minted Academy Award nominee Chris Terrio) and acting. Now about that Best Director snub… (Ciné, UGA Tate Theatre)
BROKEN CITY (R) Is anyone else feeling like if you’ve seen one political-crime thriller, you’ve seen them all? (Anybody else remember 1996’s City Hall?) Diehard fans of Mark Wahlberg, Russell Crowe or Catherine Zeta-Jones (I guess there’s at least one person who has to watch everything she appears in) will be pleasantly met with a routine political thriller about ex-cop-turned-private eye, Billy Taggart (Wahlberg), discovering a deeper, darker scandal (but not too deep or too dark) after being hired by Mayor Nick Hostetler (Crowe) to find out with whom his wife (CZJ) is sleeping. The cast, which includes Barry Pepper and Kyle Chandler, makes the dramatic machinations of Allen Hughes’ first directorial effort sans brother Albert seem a lot more interesting, but so many better films are in theaters right now. Why waste time on an average flick you’ve essentially seen several times before?
BULLET TO THE HEAD (R) A cop and a hitman (Sylvester Stallone and new Conan, Jason Momoa) team up after their partners are killed. Sly attempts to build on his Rocky/Rambo/Expendables comeback with a new movie from Walter Hill (whose The Warriors is the coolest movie not made by John Carpenter; the rest of Hill’s filmography does not shine as brightly). I would like to have seen what original director Wayne Kramer (based on his Running Scared) could have fashioned from this material. With Christian Slater and alliterative “Lost” star Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje.
CAMPUS MOVIE FEST (NR) Campus Movie Fest, the world’s largest student film festival, comes to Athens as students compete to film a movie in a week. It started Wednesday, Jan. 16, when students took a MacBook Pro or iPad 2 and a Panasonic HD camcorder and filmed their five-minute-or-less story, and culminates on Thursday, Jan. 31. Featured categories include Best Picture, Best Drama and Best Comedy. Be at the Tate Center on Jan. 31 to enjoy the results. (UGA Tate Theatre)
DJANGO UNCHAINED (R) Not many auteurs can take an academic cinematic exercise and turn it into one of the year’s most entertaining spectacles like Quentin Tarantino can. Slave Django (Jamie Foxx) is freed by dentist-turned-bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz (Golden Globe nominee Christoph Waltz, the single greatest gift QT has given American movie audiences). Together the duo hunts bad guys and seeks Django’s wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), who belongs to plantation owner Calvin Candie (Golden Globe nominee Leonardo DiCaprio). For a critically acclaimed award nominee, Django Unchained is an ultraviolent blast. Every bullet creates an unbelievable explosion of blood, and every actor gives a gleefully energetic performance. DiCaprio and Samuel L. Jackson have a particularly grand chemistry. Modern cinema’s biggest cinephile-cum-director again proves how great a genre film can be. QT continues to bring exploitation flicks from the grindhouse to the multiplex and the award shows. Few modern movies convey their creator’s delight as a QT film does; one knows he is making movies he wants to see, not movies to which he thinks audiences will flock. Sure, detractors will slam Django Unchained for its bloody violence and offensive language, but it’s most notable for a perfectly rare combination of art and entertainment.
FLIGHT (R) Robert Zemeckis returns to live action movies for adults (since 2000's Cast Away) with this Denzel Washington-starring, after-work special about alcoholism dressed up as an airplane crash drama. Captain Whip Whitaker (Washington) may be a great pilot, but he's not such a great guy. Yet while hungover, still drunk and high on coke, Whitaker saves most of the 102 souls on flight 227 after a mechanical failure requires him to pull off an unconventional crash landing. Starring a big handful of swell actors—Don Cheadle, Bruce Greenwood, John Goodman and Melissa Leo join Washington—Flight calls to mind a '70s issue movie (something Sidney Lumet or Norman Jewison might have directed Al Pacino in) wrapped in a tense, quasi-legal drama. Every part is exceptional, though it is Washington's latest award-worthy turn (his first since 2007's American Gangster) which lifts the movie above the cloudy inspirational moralizing that probably would have occurred with another star (say, Will Smith). The crash sequence alone deserves a spot on the shortlist for 2012's best scenes; don't be surprised if Denzel and Flight soar come awards season.
GANGSTER SQUAD (R) For anybody lamenting about a lack of Dick Tracy meets The Untouchables period mob flicks, Gangster Squad will fill that rather peculiar hole in your life. Former boxer turned mob kingpin Mickey Cohen (an almost out-of-control Sean Penn, who’s under so much makeup he resembles a Dick Tracy villain) is trying to take control of Los Angeles. Police Chief Parker (Nick Nolte) enlists several officers, led by Sergeant John O’Mara (Josh Brolin), to fight fire with criminal fire. Based on a true story, Gangster Squad feels as if it were ripped from the pages of a pulpy crime magazine like True Detective thanks to the stylish flourishes of director Ruben Fleischer (Zombieland) and his actors. Gosling is particularly perfect as tough, pretty boy Lieutenant Jerry Wooters, whose love for Cohen’s moll (Emma Stone) could get them both killed. If one wants screen violence committed by dedicated, well-dressed policemen amidst the glitz of 1940s L.A. (fans of the videogame L.A. Noire know what I’m talking about), Gangster Squad will not disappoint.
• HANSEL & GRETEL: WITCH HUNTERS (R) Wondering how Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters made it to theaters is a far more interesting way to spend the action fairy tale’s sub-90-minute runtime. The fabled origin of Hansel and Gretel is well-known. Two kids are left alone in the forest and stumble upon a witch’s candy house; the kids kill the witch. Dead Snow’s Tommy Wirkola imagines what happens next, as Hansel and Gretel (Jeremy Renner and Gemma Arterton) grow up to be traveling hunters of deadly witches. Apparently, the biggest, baddest witch (Famke Janssen) is hatching a plot that requires Gretel, due to a not-so-surprising mid-film reveal. Renner deserves better starring roles than this, or the ones in The Avengers and The Bourne Legacy. He needs a role to highlight his dry delivery and superheroics. Arterton’s pretty and British, but her Gretel is an interchangeable part that could have been played by many a former Bond girl. Wirkola also seems to have some difficulties with tone, shifting from mean and callous to slapstick in seconds. Perhaps the presence of Will Ferrell and Adam McKay as producers pushed the movie to be funnier than it needed. Hansel & Gretel will be forgotten by February.
A HAUNTED HOUSE (R) Marlon Wayans can be a pretty funny guy, and we already know from Requiem for a Dream that he can act when he’s trying. Found footage spoof, A Haunted House, occasionally works, mostly because Wayans acts like a normal, albeit egregiously silly guy. Wayans’ Malcolm invites his girlfriend, Kisha (Essence Atkins), to move in with him. Unfortunately, Kisha brings a ghostly presence with her, eventually becoming possessed. Malcolm tries everything to get his (sex) life back on track. Judging from the Scary Movie 5 trailer that preceded it, A Haunted House will be the superior horror spoof of 2013. Don’t take that assessment to be a sign of approval, but A Haunted House could have been less funny. It has a few moments of genuine hilarity. Mostly, it relies on sophomoric bathroom humor that will please its target audience.
THE HAUNTING IN CONNECTICUT 2: GHOSTS OF GEORGIA (R) The Haunting in Connecticut franchises with this Georgia-set sequel. Another family moves into another old house that’s haunted by some spooks. This flick sounds like it somehow wandered off the direct-to-DVD path. The cast is TV-heavy—Abigail Spencer, Chad Michael Murray of “One Tree Hill” and Katee Sackhoff from the new “Battlestar Galactica”—with Cicely Tyson providing some class. Director Tom Elkins edited the first movie, as well as the White Noise sequel.
HERE COMES THE BOOM (PG-13) Adam Sandler’s made plenty of pictures worse than this Kevin James vehicle about outlandish ways to save education. James’ Scott Voss is a high school biology teacher who turns to MMA to fund the extracurriculars at his struggling school. An appealing supporting cast includes Salma Hayek, Henry Winkler, Greg Germann and real life MMA fighter Bas Rutten (after an appearance in Paul Blart: Mall Cop and voice work in Zookeeper, he’s becoming a James regular) to assist the extremely likable James in an odd, family-friendly mash-up of educational messages and inspirational sports, where the sports are extremely vicious. It doesn’t NOT work, but more refined audiences will cringe at the movie’s genial attitude toward violence.
THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY (PG-13) How comforting it is to return to Middle-earth, especially with Peter Jackson (he replaced original director Guillermo del Toro, who retained a co-writing credit with Lord of the Rings Oscar winners Jackson, Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens). Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman, the BBC “Office” star, a master of reactionary mugging) is asked by the wizard Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellan) to join a company of Dwarves led by Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage). Jackson and his writing cohort have expanded Tolkien’s single novel into three films by adding sequences from the series’ appendices, a decision that allows this first film to be paced a bit logily in getting the company on the road. Thanks to multiple childhood viewings of Rankin-Bass’ Hobbit cartoon, I’ve always preferred the prequel to the trilogy proper. While this first film lacks the epicness of Jackson’s previous series entries, it makes up for it with its comically entertaining dwarves and rousing action sequences. Bilbo’s first meeting with Gollum is so well-crafted and performed by WETA’s effects wizards and motion-capture genius Andy Serkis, who is still being shunned by awards groups lacking vision. This return journey to Middle-earth is an adventure worth taking over the holiday season.
HOTEL TRANSYLVANIA (PG) Unlike the superior ParaNorman, which was a genuinely, safely frightening family horror flick, Hotel Transylvania is an amusing, run-of-the-mill animated family movie where the main characters are harmless monsters. (The lesson that monsters aren’t dangerous is a terrible, hazardous message to teach children.) To protect monsters and his daughter, Mavis, from their dreaded enemies, humans, Dracula (genially voiced by Adam Sandler) sets up a hotel in the safe confines of Transylvania. On the eve of Mavis’ 118th birthday, a human named Jonathan (v. Andy Samberg) discovers Drac’s hideaway. Thank goodness director Genndy Tartakovsky (“Dexter’s Laboratory,” “The Powerpuff Girls” and “Samurai Jack”) brings his visual creativity to this rather rote tale of prejudice and cross-cultural romance. The sequences that work best are the ones that have fun with the conventions of Universal’s classic movie monsters. Samberg’s saddled with a rather boring character, but Selena Gomez’s Mavis has spunk. The adults—Kevin James as Frankenstein, Steve Buscemi as the Wolfman, David Spade as the Invisible Man and CeeLo Green as the Mummy—are even better as cartoon monsters than their usual human cartoons.
THE IMPOSSIBLE (PG-13) One of the buzzier films to enter the year-end awards season and come out nearly empty-handed, The Impossible dramatizes the real-life story of a family (played on screen by Academy Award nominee Naomi Watts, Ewan McGregor, Tom Holland, Samuel Joslin and Oaklee Pendergast) that survived one of the worst natural disasters of our time, the tsunami that hit the Indian Ocean in 2004. Newcomer Holland's performance has been generating Best Supporting Actor talk. The film marks the awaited English-language debut of The Orphanage director, Juan Antonio Bayona. (Ciné)
THE LAST STAND (R) Arnold Schwarzenegger’s return to the big screen as an action lead isn’t among the charismatic muscle man’s top flicks, but this High Noon on steroids is more amusing than most modern action movies. Arnold stars as Sheriff Ray Owens, whose small town stands between a fugitive drug lord and Mexico. Standing with the sheriff are his inexperienced staff of oddballs—the trusty deputy (Luis Guzman, who is always good to lighten the mood), the young female office (Jaimie Alexander), a bad boy trying to make good (Rodrigo Santoro) and the local gun “collector” (Johnny Knoxville, who somehow wound up with his name above the title and his mug on the poster). The gags are strangely silly in the English language debut of The Good, the Bad, the Weird’s Kim Jee-woon, but the pops of bloody squibs are real, not digital. Arnold is as oddly magnetic as always, though the movie could use more of the 65-year-old action hero. I longed to get back to Schwarzenegger every time the story requires time be spent with Forest Whitaker’s FBI Agent or Eduardo Noriega’s drug lord. With one additional gimmick (real time?), The Last Stand could’ve been more than Arnold’s entertaining return.
LES MISERABLES (PG-13) Golden Globe winner for best musical, Les Miserables harks back to the 1960s, when colossal musical adaptations were the rule, not the exception. (Four of the decade’s 10 Best Picture winners were musical adaptations.) Parolee Jean Valjean (Golden Globe winner Hugh Jackman) attempts to make up for his past crimes by raising Cosette (Amanda Seyfried), the daughter of a fallen young woman named Fantine (Golden Globe winner Anne Hathaway). Constantly on Valjean’s heels is Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe), who will not give up the chase for this parole violator. Gigantically staged and competently sung, Les Mis will please the massive post-Christmas crowds and sway many an awards panel. Its Oscar nomination is already in; whether or not it wins depends on how old school the Academy is feeling. They could do worse; finding 10 films more captivating for its the whole of its near-three-hour runtime is difficult at best. Small criticisms abound for such a massive undertaking. Outside of Hathaway, the star-studded cast has vocal talents that rank somewhere below a regional touring company. Seyfried is especially reedy. A few words of advice: don’t take your bathroom breaks when Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter are onscreen. Enjoy the show!
LIFE OF PI (PG) Having last thought of Yann Martel’s novel when I read it nearly 10 years ago, the ineffective trailers for Ang Lee’s adaptation failed to remind me of how wonderful and energetic Pi Patel’s life had been. I recalled a shipwreck, a lifeboat and a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. The imaginatively conceived and beautifully told work of art created by Brokeback Mountain Oscar winner Lee, who certainly deserves the noms he received for Best Picture and Best Director, reminded me of the many, small joys that add up to make the life of Pi. Do not let the underwhelming previews deprive you of one of the year’s most moving, most artistic films of the year. The opening anecdote relating the origin of Pi’s name conjures up the modern fairy tale magic of past crowd-pleasers Amelie and Hugo. Newcomer Suraj Sharma, stranded for lengthy sequences with nothing but a tiger for a costar, and the ever-excellent Irrfan Khan (most recently seen in The Amazing Spider-Man) deliver delicate performances. (Ciné)
LINCOLN (PG-13) Historical biopics do not come much more perfect than Steven Spielberg’s take on our 16th president’s struggle to end slavery by way of the 13th Amendment. Rather than tell Abraham Lincoln’s life story, screenwriter Tony Kushner (the Oscar nominee for Munich also wrote the excellent “Angels in America”) chose the ideal, earth-shattering month upon which to focus. He populates Spielberg’s 19th-century hallways with living, breathing figures of American history like William Seward (David Strathairn), Thaddeus Stevens (Oscar nominee Tommy Lee Jones), Alexander Stephens (Jackie Earle Haley), Edwin Stanton (Bruce McGill) and Ulysses S. Grant (Jared Harris), but the film will be remembered and lauded as another platform from which Daniel Day-Lewis can solidify his claim to the title of greatest living actor. He uncannily becomes Lincoln with such ease; he also humanizes a larger-than-life figure we tend to treat far too reverently. His authentic performance helps keep Spielberg’s best film since 1998’s Saving Private Ryan from falling into the hagiographical trap. Lincoln is nominated in nearly every Oscar category. It is also the bipartisan film our post-election America needs to remind us what to expect from great leaders. If these elected representatives could compromise to make history, certainly ours can to salvage the present.
MAMA (PG-13) As much of a horror movie fan as yours truly is, the ghostly stories often favored by Spanish filmmakers are not my subgenre of choice. In Mama, produced by Guillermo del Toro and based on a short expanded by writer-director Andrés Muschietti, two young girls are found in a cabin, where they have lived alone for five years. Unfortunately, when Annabel and Lucas (Academy Award nominee Jessica Chastain and Nicolaj Coster-Waldau) get Victoria and Lily home, they discover the two girls were not alone in the woods, and they’ve brought their rather angry “Mama” with them. The buildup is slow and foreboding, but the final act asks far too much of its CGI creature, whose overly digital appearance elicits more giggles than screams. When coupled with Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, Mama sucks a bit more wind out of del Toro’s producing sails; so long as summer’s Pacific Rim doesn’t dim his writing-directing luster, everything should be okay.
• MOVIE 43 (R) Big names (Kate Winslet, Hugh Jackman, Halle Berry, Richard Gere, Greg Kinnear, Dennis Quaid, Naomi Watts, Liev Schreiber, Emma Stone and many more!) saying and doing outrageous, raunchy things does not a funny movie make. A couple of the barely connected, scatological sketches show some creativity and generate some genuine laughs. The “Homeschooled” segment, starring Watts and Schreiber as two very unique, overbearing parents, outclasses its peers by comic miles, while “Super Hero Speed Dating,” starring Jason Sudeikis and Justin Long as Batman and Robin, and the Elizabeth Banks directed “Middleschool Date,” mostly work. Ricky Gervais’ buddy, Stephen Merchant, salvages some laughs opposite a game Halle Berry, but surviving Winslet and Jackman’s opening blunder, “The Catch,” is nearly impossible, killing any humorous vibes before the decent sketches even have a chance. It’s a shame the writing is so bad since several of the stars, particularly Kinnear and Terrence Howard, work far harder than this cinematic blunder calls for. Don’t waste your time or money on a theatrical viewing of this “comedy.” If you must see it, wait until you have the ability to skip past the unfunny majority.
MY NEIGHBOR TOTORO (G) 1988. The Studio Ghibli Film Series returns, bringing four fresh classics from legendary Japanese filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki to the big screen (on fresh 35mm prints!) through Feb. 10. Two young girls, Satsuke and Mei, move to the country with their university professor father so as to be closer to their recuperating mother. In the nearby forest, the girls discover and befriend tiny wood sprites called Totoros. The Disney version features the voices of Dakota and Elle Fanning. (Ciné)
ONE NIGHT STAND (NR) This documentary follows four teams of talented performers and writers as each team writes, rehearses and performs a 20-minute Broadway musical in 24 hours. The teams include Rachel Dratch, Cheyenne Jackson, Jesse Tyler Ferguson and many other big theater names. Jan. 31 only.
PARENTAL GUIDANCE (PG) Billy Crystal and Bette Midler star as old-school grandparents forced to care for their decidedly 21st-century grandchildren. Director Andy Fickman’s filmography is more weak (The Game Plan, Race to Witch Mountain) than bad (You Again); I did enjoy his Amanda Bynes cross-dressing comedy, She’s the Man. Splash Academy Award nominees Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel are credited with the rewrite. With Marisa Tomei, Bailee Madison (the young Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark star is a boon) and Tom Everett Scott.
• PARKER (R) Parker is another solid crime thriller starring Jason Statham that suffers from the stale familiarity of another solid crime thriller starring Jason Statham. This umpteenth big screen version of Richard Stark nee Donald E. Westlake’s popular, amoral thief (previously played by Lee Marvin, Anna Karina, Jim Brown, Robert Duvall, Peter Coyote and Mel Gibson) adapts the novel Flashfire, in which Parker plots to steal jewels in West Palm Beach. After being left for dead by his partners (led by Michael Chiklis) in Ohio, Parker, who has a strong, if messed up, sense of honor, seeks vengeance in Florida with the assistance of a down on her luck realtor (Jennifer Lopez). If Lopez thought lightning might strike twice, it didn’t; Parker isn’t as good as her breakout turn in Soderbergh’s Elmore Leonard adaptation, Out of Sight. However, Statham might be the best Parker yet. He perfectly blends charisma with an unbending sense of righteousness. Director Taylor Hackford mostly stays out of the way, keeping the film running at a gritty, lean pace (minus some unnecessarily jarring flashbacks). Parker’s the best character Statham has been given yet; here’s hoping for better heists to come.
RED DAWN (PG-13) This preposterous movie borne of the Cold War fears and tensions of the 1980s need not have been remade. A motley group of teenagers (including Chris “Thor” Hemsworth, Josh “Peeta” Hutcherson and Tom Cruise’s adopted kid, Connor Cruise) stage an insurgency against communist invaders; the North Koreans, with an assist from the Russians, replace the original’s Soviet/Cuban alliance. The idea that these teens could transform into an elite fighting force so quickly either underestimates North Korean military readiness or overestimates American teenagers' military prowess. Worse, this new Dawn simply lacks the indelible, if absurd, moments from the original, making it hard to imagine future audiences marveling at the new cast as we do the original’s “once was-ers” nearly 30 years later. Red Dawn Redux fails to rouse feelings of patriotism or jingoism and will not be remembered come 2014.
SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK (R) Athens has been waiting for the arrival of David O. Russell’s multiple Academy Award nominee, and the dram-rom-com does everything but disappoint. Pat (Academy Award nominee Bradley Cooper) has just been released from a state mental hospital after a violent incident involving his estranged wife and another man. Maybe too soon after coming home, Pat meets Tiffany (Academy Award nominee and Golden Globe winner Jennifer Lawrence), who lost it after the death of her husband. Instead of exacerbating each other’s unhealthy flaws, the relationship between these two cracked souls heals both, much to the surprise of everyone, including Pat’s parents (dual Oscar nominees Robert De Niro and Animal Kingdom’s Jacki Weaver). Besides I Heart Huckabees (which deserves reevaluation) and Russell’s infamous tirade, The Fighter, the filmmaker has one of the strongest filmographies of any of the acclaimed auteurs first discovered in the 1990s. Silver Linings Playbook has an awkward edge—you keep waiting for Pat and Tiffany’s house of cards to collapse—that makes even the smallest successes so much sweeter. Russell’s fiery demeanor and beautiful writing certainly ignites his actors; Cooper and Lawrence give two of the year’s most generous and honest performances. Silver Linings Playbook should not be missed.
SKYFALL (PG-13) The middle third of Daniel Craig’s third outing as James Bond is the best 007 adventure in 20, maybe even 30, years. Too bad director Sam Mendes (American Beauty) and his team of scripters won’t just let Bond be Bond for the entirety of the film. Skyfall almost completely unravels before the opening credits. The pre-credits chase—involving Bond, a female agent, a train and a baddie—concludes with M (Judi Dench) showing no faith in her best agent, a decision that makes little sense in this, or any, Bond-verse. In three films, Bond has gone from a newly licensed Double 0 to a dinosaur; when can Bond just be Bond again? (At least Quantum of Solace got that very right.) For an hour and in its tantalizing conclusion, Skyfall dresses in the formalwear of traditional Bond. Q, an all-time great villain, Silva (a blonde, 100% pure crazy Javier Bardem) and more help balance cool deadliness with world-saving silliness. Through Moore and Brosnan’s tenures, the balance favored silly; Craig’s scale might be tipped too far in the opposite direction. If the right mixture can be found, we could again see a candidate for Best Bond Ever.
SOUND CITY (NR) Multitalented musician Dave Grohl of Nirvana and Foo Fighters directed this documentary on the Van Nuys, California recording studio, where Kurt Cobain, Krist Novoselic and Grohl recorded their legendary band’s seminal album, Nevermind. Grohl has compiled an impressive list of interviewees including Frank Black, Lindsey Buckingham, Kevin Cronin (lead vocalist of REO Speedwagon for those who don’t know), Rivers Cuomo, Mick Fleetwood, Josh Homme, Paul McCartney, Stevie Nicks, Tom Petty, Trent Reznor, Rick Rubin, Rick Springfield, Lars Ulrich and Butch Vig.
STAND UP GUYS (R) Aging con men attempt to get the old team back together in this crime comedy starring heavyweights Al Pacino, current Academy Award nominee Alan Arkin and Christopher Walken. This flick appeared out of nowhere with little marketing support. Director Fisher Stevens hasn’t directed a feature since 2002’s Just a Kiss, but he’ll always be remembered for his turn in Short Circuit and not for his return in Short Circuit 2. With Julianna Margulies, Lucy Punch, Bill Burr and Craig Sheffer.
SUMMERTIME (NR) 1955. Epic auteur David Lean (The Bridge On the River Kwai, Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago) co-wrote and directed this romantic drama based on Arthur Laurents’ play, The Time of the Cuckoo. A middle-aged schoolteacher (Katharine Hepburn) falls in love with an Italian shopkeeper after taking the European excursion she’s waited for all her life. Hepburn was nominated for Best Actress, and Lean was nominated Best Director. The film is showing as part of the Georgia Museum of Art’s Americans in Italy Film Series. (GMOA)
TAKEN 2 (PG-13) Most movies fail to encapsulate the description “unnecessary sequel” as perfectly as Taken 2. (I wish it had had some silly subtitle like Taken 2: Takenier, but alas.) As a consequence of the violent methods he employed to retrieve his kidnapped daughter, Kim (Maggie Grace), in the first movie, retired CIA operative Bryan Mills (Liam Neeson), must face off against the Albanian dad (played by go-to Eastern European baddie Rade Serbedzija) of one of the sex traffickers he killed during his rescue mission. Once Bryan get himself and Kim to safety, he must go after some more Albanians and save his estranged wife, Lenore (Famke Janssen). The scenery—Bryan must clean the Eurotrash from the bazaars of Istanbul as opposed to the streets of Paris—isn’t the only thing that’s changed. While writer-producer Luc Besson returns, he replaces Taken director Pierre Morel with Transporter 3’s Olivier Megaton. Unfortunately, that substitution brings with it action choreography/cinematography that is far less comprehensible. Add a far too slow opening act to the jumbled action and Taken 2 falls far below the bar set by its surprise success of a predecessor.
TEXAS CHAINSAW 3D (R) Leatherface returns! A young woman (the gorgeous Alexandra Daddario, Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief) heads to Texas for her inheritance and runs into the dangerous Sawyer clan and its chainsaw-wielding, skin-wearing man-child. Original Leatherface Gunnar Hansen and The Devil’s Rejects’ Bill Moseley, who played Chop-Top in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, make return appearances as Sawyers. Unfortunately, the latest Texas Chainsaw, sans the titular Massacre, is directed by the same guy who did the dreadful Takers.
THIS IS 40 (R) Sure, This Is 40 will provide viewers with more laughs than any of its contemporary comedic peers, but it should; it’s at least one sitcom episode longer than a typical comedy. Writer-director Judd Apatow, of whom I am a big fan, could definitely benefit from some stronger criticisms of overstuffed, raunch-filled dramedies. This semi-sequel to Knocked Up follows Pete and Debbie (Paul Rudd and Leslie Mann) as they turn 40. Life isn’t quite what they expected. They struggle to raise their two daughters (Apatow and Mann’s real life kids, Iris and Maude), support Pete’s dad (the always welcome Albert Brooks) and succeed in their professional lives. Apatow packs way too much into a comedy that amounts to six episodes of a situation comedy. By Pete’s climactic party, the movie ratchets up, focusing as much on comic C-plots with ancillary characters played by Jason Segel, Chris O’Dowd and Megan Fox as on the A-plot. Fortunately, the cast of funny people, led by the uber-likable Rudd, can make anything funny, even the struggles of potty-mouthed, unaware adults seeking to blame their messed up lives on anyone (but especially their parents) but themselves. Somehow, Rudd, God bless him, makes that funny.
WARM BODIES (PG-13) The products of Jonathan Levine’s short career (the little-seen All the Boys Love Mandy Lane, The Wackness and 50/50) have been pretty strong. He returns to the horror genre for the first time since his feature debut with this zomromdram starring Nicholas Hoult (Jack the Giantkiller) as a zombie, who falls for the girlfriend (Teresa Palmer, Take Me Home Tonight) of one of his victims/meals. With Dave Franco (James’ bro), John Malkovich and Rob Corddry.
ZERO DARK THIRTY (R) Academy Award winner Kathryn Bigelow (recently snubbed for a second Best Director nomination) and her Oscar winning collaborator, screenwriter Mark Boal (he did receive his second nomination this year) follow up The Hurt Locker with this controversial, excellently crafted military thriller documenting the decade-long search for Osama bin Laden. Despite everyone (I hope) in the audience knowing how the story ends, Bigelow and Boal ratchet up the tension, as near misses and further attacks make the search, conducted by the ferociously single-minded screen proxy Maya (Best Actress nominee and slight favorite Jessica Chastain), that much more desperate. The controversial torture scenes, mostly contained in the first act, are tough to watch but factually necessary. The film ends with its well-earned climax, Seal Team Six’s daring nighttime raid, a rare action sequence that thrills and also chills with verisimilitude. Zero Dark Thirty is an intriguing, darkly patriotic counterpoint to the year’s other major American historical drama about a president willing to push the office’s constitutional limits for the sake of protecting the nation. Both films are award worthy and deserving of your entry fee, but Lincoln has the Oscar edge.