ACT OF VALOR (R) At times, Act of Valor betrays its humble origins as a military recruiting tool (think of the National Guard/Three Doors Down video for â€œCitizen Soldierâ€ expanded to feature length), but at its high-octane best, this action experiment rivals its bigger-budgeted, star-laden competitors. What really sets Act of Valor apart from its action brethren is its non-professional acting troupe, an elite team of active duty Navy SEALs playing an elite team of Navy SEALs. Understanding the soldiersâ€™ dramatic limitations, the movie tends to focus on the military tasks at which they excel, and it is rare for an action movie to feel as real. The plot feels like excised hours from one of Jack Bauerâ€™s day-long terrorist battles on â€œ24,â€ but separating the truth from the fiction becomes difficult once the fighting starts. What could have just been Call of Duty: Modern Warfareâ€”The Movie exhibits technical prowess and a singular, successful gimmick that elevates the military flick above todayâ€™s stock action movie. Act of Valor cannot deliver the emotional payoff of The Hurt Locker, but it does not dishonor our fighting men and women.
ALVIN AND THE CHIPMUNKS: CHIPWRECKED (G) Come on, Fox! If youâ€™re going to keep releasing new Chipmunks entries each holiday season, the least you can do is make a Christmas-themed movie featuring the furry trioâ€™s classic holiday tunes. Instead, Alvin, Simon, Theodore, the Chipettes and Dave (poor, paycheck-cashing Jason Lee) start out on a cruise ship and wind up on a deserted island. Judging by the boffo box office of the previous two features plus the young audienceâ€™s reaction to the new picâ€™s trailer, Chipwrecked should provide its studio with some holiday cheer.
THE ARTIST (PG-13) Films today do not come as precious or charming as Michel Hazanaviciusâ€™ Best Picture winner. A silent film that is all about talking, The Artist of title refers to matinee idol George Valentin (Academy Award winner Jean Dujardin, who absolutely must be a silent film star Hazanivicius recently thawed from ice), who finds it difficult to transition from silent films to talkies, unlike rising star Peppy Miller (Academy Award nominee BÃ©rÃ©nice Bejo). But Miller has a crush on Valentin that predates her stardom and will do everything she can to help the despondent, one-time star. Like an unearthed gem, a long-lost silent relic, The Artist is at once wholly familiar yet completely foreign. Who knew a trifling eccentricity would wind up 2011â€™s most daring film?
A SEPARATION (PG-13) This yearâ€™s Academy Award winner for Best Picture is also the first Academy Award winner from Iran. A married couple faces one of lifeâ€™s toughest decisions. Should they leave the country to improve life for their child or should they stay in Iran to care for a parent suffering from Alzheimerâ€™s? Writer-director Asghar Farhadiâ€™s film won the Berlin International Film Festivalâ€™s Golden Bear, the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film and the Independent Spirit Award for Best International Film.
A THOUSAND WORDS (PG-13) An Eddie Murphy family comedy, directed by Brian Robbins (Meet Dave and Norbit), thatâ€™s been in the can since 2008? Nothing in this sentence implies anything good (or funny). A literary agent, Jack McCall (Murphy), is taught a lesson on truth by a spiritual guru via the Bodhi tree that appears on his property. Every word Jack speaks leads to a fallen leaf; when the last leaf falls, so does Jack. With Cliff Curtis, Kerry Washington, Allison Janney, Jack McBrayer and Clark Duke.
CHRONICLE (PG-13) An out of nowhere genre success, Chronicle should find easy entry into the cult classic pantheon. Three high schoolers (Dane DeHaan, Alex Russell and â€œFriday Night Lightsâ€â€™ Michael B. Jordan) stumble upon a mysterious cave and wind up with telekinetic powers. But, as Spider-Man teaches, â€œwith great power comes great responsibility,â€ and not everyone can handle it. As the teenagersâ€™ powers grow, one becomes increasingly dangerous. What seems to be heading toward Carrie horror territory winds up being more of a supervillain origin story, and itâ€™s brilliant. Chronicle watches like a fantastic comic book miniseries (think something from the Millarverse), telling a fresh origin story via intelligent filmmaking tricks. First time feature director Josh Trank does some fun cinematic tricks with the overdone found footage gambit, and Max â€œSon of Johnâ€ Landis provides a crackerjack script that never gets too clever with its high concept. Genre surprises, especially ones released in the dead of winter, are getting rarer. I canâ€™t wait to see what Trank and Landis do for a follow-up.
THE DESCENDANTS (R) Is The Descendants the best film of last year? If not, the bittersweet dramedy starring Academy Award nominee George Clooney is among the top two or three. Filmmaker Alexander Payne sure took his time following up his 2004 Oscar winning smash, but the delay was worth it. After a tragic accident leaves his wife in a coma, lawyer and owner of the last parcel of virgin land in Hawaii, Matt King (Clooney), struggles to raise his two daughters, come to peace with revelations about his dying wife and decide what to do with his important land. Clooney is this generationâ€™s Paul Newman, a cool cat who can pull off anything heâ€™s asked to do on screen. Here, in his tucked-in Hawaiian shirts, he epitomizes the suburban dad. Still, he drops comic gems and dramatic bombs with ease, often punctuated by his terrific reaction shots, Payne again proves himself a master of tone, perfectly balancing the humor of an incredibly bleak, emotionally complex situation.
â€¢ DR. SEUSSâ€™ THE LORAX (PG) Released on Dr. Seussâ€™ 108th birthday, this pleasant animated adaptation of the beloved childrenâ€™s authorâ€™s environmental fable fails to utterly charm like the filmmakersâ€™ previous animated smash, Despicable Me. The Lorax may visually stun you, and Danny DeVitoâ€™s brief time as voice of the Lorax could stand as his greatest role, one that will go unrecognized by any professional awards outside of the Annies. Unfortunately, the movie spends a lot less time with the fascinating, entertaining forest fighter than it does with Ed Helmsâ€™ The Once-ler (Iâ€™m usually a big Helms fan but his zany naÃ¯f felt incongruously calculated here) and bland Zac Efronâ€™s bland protagonist, Ted. On the bright side, the film excels as a traditional movie musical, where characters naturally transition into songs that deepen their character or advance the plot without some silly justification via subjective dream sequences or glee club memberships. The songs they sing could be more memorable; I cannot recall a single one a day later. The Lorax is not the yearâ€™s best animated feature (imagine what Pixar could do with Seuss), but the childishly funny film does not pander to its audience, young and old, even if it does preach a bit.
EXTREMELY LOUD AND INCREDIBLY CLOSE (PG-13)
This adaptation of the Jonathan Safran Foer novel could have devolved into Stage 4 Pay It Forward-level emotional manipulation. Instead, the 9/11 tearjerker, directed by three-time Academy Award nominee Stephen Daldry (Billy Elliot, The Hours and The Reader), only reaches Stage 2. Young Oskar Schell (â€œJeopardyâ€â€™s Kids Week Champion Thomas Horn, making a striking acting debut) tries to make sense of his fatherâ€™s death on 9/11. His dad, Thomas (Tom Hanks, in quite possibly his most saintly role to date), used to send Oskar on city-wide expeditions to help the boy conquer his social inhibitions. The final quest requires Oskar to traipse around NYC in search of a lock to fit a mysterious key. Of course, the journey to solving this mystery is more important than the solution itself. Impressive performances from the young Horn and the older Max von Sydow keep the film from drowning in its own sorrows. Appearances from Viola Davis, John Goodman and Jeffrey Wright are welcome, but Sandra Bullock merely gets her tears on as Oskarâ€™s grief-ridden mom. Everything should be fine so long as audiences simply expect the good movie Extremely Loud is, as opposed to the awards bait it fails to be.
FRIENDS WITH KIDS (R) Jessica Stein herself, Kissing Jessica Stein star and writer Jennifer Westfeldt, heads back to the big screen in her directorial debut. Two besties, Julie Keller and Jason Fryman (Westfeldt and the increasingly awesome Adam Scott), decide to have a baby together, thinking their platonic relationship will suffer less from childrearing than a romantic one would. The cast is tough and filled with Bridesmaids (Kristen Wiig, Maya Rudolph, Jon Hamm and Chris Oâ€™Dowd) and Edward Burns.
GHOST RIDER: SPIRIT OF VENGEANCE (PG-13) Marvelâ€™s Neveldine/Taylor experiment might have gone better had the company had the guts to release another R-rated flick a la their two Punisher flops. The Crank duo brings their frenetic, non-stop visual style, but those wicked paeans to hedonism had a narrative need to never slow down (its lead character would die). Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance must pump the brakes occasionally to let the â€œstoryâ€ catch up, and Neveldine/Taylor never seem as comfortable when the movieâ€™s not rocketing along at 100 miles an hour. They also donâ€™t keep a tight enough rein on their star; Nic Cage is allowed to unleash every one of his worst acting instincts as Johnny Blaze/Ghost Rider, tasked with saving a young boy from the Devil (Ciaran Hinds). A handful of my favorite actors (Hinds, Idris Elba, Anthony Head) cannot save this merrily daft movie. Not even the Highlander himself, Christopher Lambert, who makes the most of his pitifully small screen time, is a match for the movieâ€™s voracious, unhinged lead. Nonetheless, Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance is a step up from its tremendously awful predecessor (Neveldine/Taylor > Mark Steven Johnson).
THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO (R) Stieg Larsson may have created Lisbeth Salander, but David Fincher and the bold Rooney Mara have made her a big-screen icon. (No offense to Noomi Rapaceâ€™s Lisbeth, but Maraâ€™s movie is loads better.) Fincher dangerously retains Larssonâ€™s wicked, violent, European sexuality for Hollywoodâ€™s adaptation of the first book in the Millennium Trilogy. Journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) enlists the help of the titular tattooed (and multiply pierced) girl, a ward of the state who might be a psychopath but is certainly a genius, to solve a decades old murder. Readers of the novel will marvel at how smartly screenwriter Steven Zaillian jettisons the novelâ€™s clunky points to streamline the central mystery (who killed Harriet Vanger?) and posit a new one (who is Lisbeth Salander?). Top-notch performances, red slashes of humor and Fincherâ€™s masterful control of style (the stunning opening credits imply some twisted mix of Bond and bondage) propel the film with a badass energy, fed by Academy Award winning composers, Trent Reznor and Atticus Rose. Much like The Silence of the Lambs, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo weds the ghettoized thrills of genre with a larger cinematic ambition. Pop literary filmmaking gets no better than this.
GONE (PG-13) Gone, a serial killer thriller starring large-eyed beauty Amanda Seyfried, is not even bad enough to be fun. Seyfried stars as Jill Conway, who was abducted and placed in a hole in the woods surrounding Portland, Oregon. (Note: Portlandâ€™s tourism bureau needs to step it up; television, books and movies imply the city is ground zero for serial killing.) Somehow, she escapes, but a year later, her sister, Molly, disappears. Jill suspects her abductor is behind her sisterâ€™s disappearance, but the cops (including cold-eyed Wes Bentley, who just screams red herring at this point in his career) donâ€™t believe her, due to her stint in a mental hospital following her alleged abduction. Donâ€™t be fooled by my description; itâ€™s much more entertaining than the actual movie. Seyfried is not strong enough to support a weak movie with nary another star; â€œDexterâ€â€™s Jennifer Carpenter doesnâ€™t count (her role serves virtually no narrative point), though it is exciting to see Nick Searcy of â€œJustifiedâ€ pop by for a scene. Were only Gone as awfully satisfying as the Al Pacino stinker, 88 Minutes. Now that flick teaches a masterâ€™s course in how to make bad serial killer chillers.
GOOD DEEDS (PG-13) Good Deeds is another average melodrama from the entertainment juggernaut that is Atlantaâ€™s Tyler Perry. Perry stars as Wesley Deeds, the uptight CEO of a software company who befriends a struggling widowed mother, Lindsey Wakefield (Thandie Newton), on the virtual eve of his wedding. Naturally, his relationship with Lindsey and her cute daughter, Ariel, awaken the spark of life thatâ€™s been lying dormant in Deeds for the bulk of his adult life, a course charted by his domineering mother (Phylicia Rashad). Perry has two tonal modes: the headspinning comic/dramatic combo of his Madea movies and the grindingly humorless melodrama of his non-Madea flicks. (Why Did I Get Married? remains his best movie, as it retained a sense of humor and drama without Perry donning a dress.) Good Deeds is planted squarely in the latter camp. Lighter moments are so hard to come by you will yearn for Madea to drop in to say â€œhur-lo.â€ Supporting characters, such as Wesleyâ€™s fiancee, Natalie (Gabrielle Union), and his brother, Walter (Brian White), are infuriatingly one-dimensional. Good Deeds is duller than most of the 11 movies directed by Perry since 2006 (!); itâ€™s also superior to the bulk of them.
HUGO (PG) Oh, to be an orphan living in an early-20th-century clock! Despite its near perfection, this 3D family filmâ€”Martin Scorseseâ€™s firstâ€”may be the loveliest wide release to struggle to find its audience this year. Yet itâ€™s no wonder Scorsese, himself a film historian as well as a film lover, decided to adapt Brian Selznickâ€™s The Invention of Hugo Cabret, whose central mystery revolves around an early cinematic master. Parisian orphan Hugo (Asa Butterfield), who lives inside the clocktower of the train station, seeks the answer to a mysterious automaton, left unsolved by his late father and clockmaker (Jude Law), with the help of a toymaker named Georges (Ben Kingsley) and his charge, Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretz). Knowledgeable cinephiles will be enthralled by Selznickâ€™s story, wonderfully adapted by Oscar-nominated scribe John Logan, which I refuse to spoil, and enchanted by the legendary filmmakerâ€™s gorgeous imagery, which conjures memories of Amelie and was awarded with Oscars for cinematography, visual effects and more.
JOHN CARTER (PG-13) Civil War veteran John Carter (â€œFriday Night Lightsâ€â€™ alum Taylor Kitsch, whose career is poised to blow up or implode in 2012) is transported to Mars, where 12-foot-tall barbarians rule. WALL-E director Andrew Stanton becomes the latest Pixar filmmaker to make the jump from animation to live action. Iâ€™d love to see his film be as successful as Brad Birdâ€™s Mission: Impossibleâ€”Ghost Protocol. With Bryan Cranston, Mark Strong, Ciaran Hinds, Willem Dafoe and Thomas Haden Church.
JOURNEY 2: THE MYSTERIOUS ISLAND (PG) Journey 2: The Mysterious Islandâ€™s biggest problem might be time. Many of the young people who enjoyed its 2008 forebear, Journey to the Center of the Earth, might have outgrown the Brendan Fraser/Dwayne â€œThe Rockâ€ Johnson brand of family adventure movie. Sean (Josh Hutcherson, soon to be Peeta in The Hunger Games) and his future stepdad, Hank (the always appealing Johnson), travel to the mysterious island to find Seanâ€™s granddad (Michael Caine). Along for the ride are a goofy helicopter pilot (Luis Guzman, being as Guzman-y as ever) and his gorgeous daughter (Vanessa Hudgens). The islandâ€™s giant, 3D-tastic flora and fauna make for a movie thatâ€™s fun to look at for an hour and a half, especially on the big screen, but does not create the sort of lasting impression needed to survive in todayâ€™s oversaturated entertainment market.
â€¢ PROJECT X (R) This teen â€œgreatest party ever filmedâ€ flick could use a more descriptive title, preferably one that doesnâ€™t get as many children of the ’80s’ hearts racing at the thought of a remake of the Matthew Broderick, Helen Hunt and a monkey movie. As a responsible adult, I lament how this teen comedy, produced by The Hangoverâ€™s Todd Phillips, condones the Internet eraâ€™s hedonism as teenage rite of passage. Three unpopular high schoolersâ€”Thomas (Thomas Mann), Costa (Oliver Cooper) and JB (Jonathan Daniel Brown)â€”throw a party so wild (sex, drugs, alcohol, fire, a midget; itâ€™s like the boys go to Bret Easton Ellis High) that not even the cops can stop it, a conceit that play rights into teenagersâ€™ already overinflated egos. As a former teenager, I wish Iâ€™d been invited. The appeal of Project X truly depends on the perspectiveâ€”adult or teenâ€”from which you view it as the party supplies few surprising acts of debauchery. It does add a novel running gag about two overzealous, overmatched teen security guards. Their misadventures had a sense of freshness from which the rest of this slightly tired party flick could have benefited.
SAFE HOUSE (R) For Safe Houseâ€™s target fans of Denzel Washington, whizzing bullets and car chases, the action flick is critically bulletproof; for me, it was competently boring. Former CIA operative turned rogue asset, Tobin Frost (Washington), goes on the run with green agent Matt Weston (Ryan Reynolds, in the thankless role anyone could have filled) hot on his heels. Washington remains the laziest talent in Hollywood. What draws him to waste his chops on these action-filled scripts with such obvious plot trajectories? You can tell which CIA bigwig (the suspects being Sam Shepard, Vera Farmiga and Brendan Gleeson) Weston shouldnâ€™t trust from the trailers, and try as they might to imply otherwise, one can easily presume Washingtonâ€™s Frost hasnâ€™t gone rogue for sheer psychopathic thrills or mere greed. The predictable action is delivered with the workmanlike craftsmanship (quick edits, handheld camerawork, etc.) one expects from a production that is clearly influenced by Washingtonâ€™s work with Tony Scott, but lacks his more artful eye. Safe House should make enough money to keep Washingtonâ€™s rep as a box office draw undiminished, but wonâ€™t make much of an impression in his increasingly inconsequential filmography.
SALMON FISHING IN THE YEMEN (PG-13) A fisheries expert (Ewan McGregor) attempts to fulfill a sheikâ€™s dream of bringing fly fishing to Yemen. The newest film from multiple Academy Award nominee Lasse Hallstrom (My Life as a Dog and The Cider House Rules) sounds like the sort of feel good, crowd pleaser at which he excels (think Chocolat). A script by Slumdog Millionaireâ€™s Academy Award winning screenwriter Simon Beaufoy should not hurt. With Emily Blunt, Kristin Scott Thomas and Amr Waked.
THE SECRET WORLD OF ARRIETTY (G) In an era when most animated features are brash, loud commercials for action figures with fast food tie-ins, Studio Ghibli releases a quiet, thoughtful, humorous cartoon adaptation of Mary Nortonâ€™s The Borrowers. A young boy, Shawn (v. David Henrie), is sent to recuperate in the solitude of his auntâ€™s home. There he meets a tiny family of â€œBorrowersâ€â€”father Pod (v. Will Arnett, who does surprisingly well in a non-comedic role), mother Homily (v. Amy Poehler) and Arrietty (v. Bridgit Mendler)â€”and protects them from the nosy housekeeper, Hara (v. Carol Burnett). How refreshing it was to hear the few children in the theater laugh at an animated film that did not feature jokes about bodily functions, silly voices (Iâ€™m looking at you, Mater) or cute, talking animals! The Secret World of Arrietty may not have been directed by Hayao Miyazaki (he is credited as writer and executive producer), yet it retains the creative and artistic hallmarks of his greatest works. The attention to detail paid to Arriettyâ€™s miniature world simply stuns. The ill-chosen musical interludes are the filmâ€™s single misstep.
SHERLOCK HOLMES: A GAME OF SHADOWS (PG-13) Much like its 2009 predecessor, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows is a perfectly forgettable crowdpleaser. Robert Downey, Jr. revisits his hyper-bordering-on-manic, streetfighting master sleuth, this time tasked with defeating his literary arch-nemesis, Professor James Moriarty (the appropriate Jared Harris of AMCâ€™s â€œMad Menâ€). Assisted as always by Dr. John Watson (Jude Law, again a game companion to Downey), Holmes is also joined by his brother, Mycroft (Stephen Fry), Watsonâ€™s new wife (Kelly Reilly) and a gypsy fortune teller (Noomi Rapace, best known as the original Lisbeth Salander). Director Guy Ritchie coats everything in his usual super-stylish action sheen, lending the movie a surfeit of style, minus that pesky substance that might give the flick the little literary weight that could make this a classic reimagining of Sir Arthur Conan Doyleâ€™s most famous creation. No ticket buyers should leave disappointed, unless they expect an entertainment satiation more enduring than the original.
THIS MEANS WAR (PG-13) They might as well have ponied up for the â€œSpy vs. Spyâ€ license and made a truly misguided adaptation of the old â€œMadâ€ comic strip. Two of the CIAâ€™s top agents/besties, FDR (Chris Pine) and Tuck (Tom Hardy), wind up dating the same girl, Lauren Scott (Reese Witherspoon). You know the drill. FDR and Tuckâ€™s friendship is tested, as both fall for Lauren, but itâ€™s more important that the player of the duo falls in love than the already sensitive one with a kid. Poorly edited early onâ€”not much makes sense in what should be a pretty straightforward first actâ€”This Means War never really finds a groove. This action romcom hybrid has a few fleeting moments, thanks to the bromantic chemistry between beefcake stars Pine and Hardy. Unfortunately, neither man shares that same spark with third lead, Witherspoon. Director McG, whose career hasnâ€™t really gone anywhere since the first Charlieâ€™s Angels (his entry in the Terminator franchise has blissfully been forgotten), gets the unnecessary action right; the required rom and com could use some work. This Means War would be an early pick for worst of 2012, but no one will remember it come yearâ€™s end.
THE VOW (PG-13) Nicholas Sparks has to be kicking himself for not coming up with this plot first. A young couple, Paige and Leo Collins (Rachel McAdams and Channing Tatum), struggle to fall in love again after a car accident erases all of Paigeâ€™s memories of Leo and their marriage. As these plots are wont to do, Paigeâ€™s rich parents (Sam Neill and Jessica Lange) and her ex-lover (Scott Speedman) use her tabula rasa to rewrite their past wrongs, while Leo must cope with the realization that his wife might never remember him. The Vow climbs out of the romantic drama pits mostly due to its two charming leads, McAdams and Tatum, who must overcome some spotty dialogue, obvious plot developments and weak supporting players (not a lot of recognizable faces outside of those five already mentioned). Director Michael Sucsy, who won an Emmy and a Golden Globe for Grey Gardens, transitions to the big screen with surprising success considering the tear-soaked tissue of a true story with which he had to work. The Vow wonâ€™t make romance fans forget The Notebook, but it is better than most of the fake (and genuine) Sparks Hollywoodâ€™s been peddling.
WANDERLUST (R) Easily 2012â€™s funniest movie to date, Wanderlust smartly plays to its starsâ€™ comedic strengths. George and Linda (Paul Rudd and Jennifer Aniston) must trade New York City for Georgia after George loses his job in high finance, but working for his douchebag brother, expertly played by cowriter Ken Marino (if you donâ€™t know him, you should), is not the solution. Having mistakenly wound up on an â€œintentional communityâ€ their first night in the state, George and Linda choose to become permanent residents of Elysium. But Linda takes more to the company, especially that of lead hippie Seth (Justin Theroux), than George does. Wanderlust may not be groundbreaking comedy, but its riff-filled script, written by Marino and director David Wain, two alums of MTVâ€™s much beloved â€œThe State,â€ perfectly matches its assembled comedic ensemble. Much like Elysium itself, this comedy succeeds based on the very funny actors (Rudd, Aniston and Theroux are assisted by Alan Alda, Malin Ackerman, Kathryn Hahn, Kerri Kenney-Silver, Lauren Ambrose, the Stella trio and more) that populate it. Beware; this R-rated gem from Apatow Productions has a deliciously dirty mouth and a great deal of penises, all in the name of good, not-so-clean fun, of course.
WE BOUGHT A ZOO (PG) This movie just generates some odd feelings. A movie directed by Cameron Crowe and starring Matt Damon, Scarlett Johansson and Thomas Haden Church sounds like a serious winner, but then thereâ€™s the title. A dad (Damon) moves his family to Southern California to renovate a struggling zoo. The Devil Wears Prada scripter Aline Brosh McKenna and Crowe relocate Benjamin Meeâ€™s memoir from England to SoCal. Some say a similar move didnâ€™t affect High Fidelity; Iâ€™m not one of those folks.
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