March 13, 2013

Movie Dope

Short Descriptions Of Movies Playing In And Around Athens...

21 AND OVER (R) One’s reaction to pejoratively describing 21 and Over as The Hangover Jr. should determine one’s level of interest in this flick. If a viewer disregarded The Hangover Part II for its lack of originality, then said viewer should stay away from 21 and Over. At least the second Hangover still had some jokes to tell. 21 and Over lacks any jokes, instead relying on an escalating series of scenarios scored to music one would hear while watching MTV’s current crop of programs. Two pals, played by the appealing duo of Miles Teller (Footloose) and Skylar Astin (Pitch Perfect), take a third friend, Jeff Chang (Justin Chon), out to celebrate his 21st birthday. But Jeff Chang cannot celebrate too hard, as he has an important med school meeting the next morning. So what does Jeff Chang do? Gets wasted. The rest of the movie involves Miller and Casey meeting hot chicks and d-bags while trying to get Jeff Chang home before his evil father (Francois Chau of “Lost”) finds them. 21 and Over mixes a plot left over from the transitional Weekend at Bernie’s period, with the raunchy, we can do anything gags of today. The resulting concoction doesn't go down well.

ATHENS JEWISH FILM FESTIVAL (NR) The Athens Jewish Film Festival again brings quality Jewish films to Athens in its annual festival. Films scheduled for this year’s diverse lineup include something for everyone. Enjoy several documentaries (Circus Kids, a.k.a. Doc Pomus, In Heaven Underground, The Flat and Welcome to the Kutcher’s: The Last Catskills Resort), a comedy (Simon Konianski), several dramas (David: The Movie, Remembrance, My Australia and Free Men) and an animated feature (The Rabbi’s Cat). Each film will include an introduction, and you might enjoy a “nosh” to boot. (Ciné)

ATHENS REVISITED (NR) The film imagines an interview with Edward Ware and Edward Lyndon, residents at different times in history of what is now the Lyndon House Arts Center. It was the second public building in Athens, after the courthouse. Q&A with writer Terrell Austin to follow. (GMOA)

CAESAR MUST DIE (NR) In Palme d’Or winning filmmakers Paolo and Vittorio Taviani’s latest film, inmates in a Roman prison are prepping a production of Julius Caesar. The film bonds documentary with narrative film as the cast consists of actual prisoners. Caesar Must Die won the Golden Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival, as well as five Davids (including Best Film and Best Director). The film was Italy’s submission for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, but it failed to make the shortlist. (Ciné)

THE CALL (R) The Call actually has grown on me since the first time I saw the trailer. A 911 operator, Jordan Turner (Halle Berry, in an inexcusable wig), looks to make up for a mistake that led to the death of a young girl at the hands of a serial killer by saving his latest victim (Abigail Breslin). Director Brad Anderson has some great genre films to his credit (Transsiberian, The Machinist, Session 9), but why he thought this flick would help his genre I will never know.

DARIUS GOES WEST (NR) 2007. Fifteen-year-old Clarke Central student Darius Weems, confined to a wheelchair by Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy, had never left Athens until some local college students, including director Logan Smalley, took the Clarke Central student on a cross-country trip. Though the ultimate goal was a fly new wheelchair courtesy of MTV's “Pimp My Ride,” Darius and his companions found so much more on the open road. Part of Volunteer UGA’s Film Festival, the screening will be followed by a discussion. (UGA MLC, Room 150)

• DEAD MAN DOWN (R) Dead Man Down is a strange movie. Danish director Niels Arden Oplev’s English language debut (he’s best known for the original Swedish version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) feels as if it should be set in a European metropolis instead of New York City. Vengeful Victor (Colin Farrell) seeks to make Alphonse Hoyt (Terrence Howard) pay for the death of Victor’s wife and daughter. While on his mission of revenge, Victor is blackmailed by sweet, scarred Beatrice (Noomi Rapace, Oplev’s Lisbeth Salander) to kill the man whose drunk driving led to her disfigurement. F. Murray Abraham, Armand Assante and Isabelle Huppert show up to make the movie feel even more foreign (an odd achievement considering Abraham and Assante are natural-born U.S. citizens). Dead Man Down offers little in the way of fun, but somehow, the dour, decidedly European crime melodrama succeeds against the odds thanks to the innocence of Rapace and the single-minded seriousness of Farrell, whose talent should never be written off. Were the film more American (i.e., filled with more explosions) and less European (i.e., more character-driven and more than moderately pensive) it would be much less memorable that it is.

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 in this Oscar winner for Best Original Screenplay. Slave Django (Jamie Foxx) is freed by dentist-turned-bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz (Best Supporting Actor Academy Award winner and 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. (Ciné)

ECOFOCUS FILM FESTIVAL (NR) UGA hosts a five-day showcase of films about environmental issues, including Switch, a documentary about the big questions of traditional energy sources, and why and how energy sources evolve. Visit for full schedule. (UGA MLC, Room 101)

ESCAPE FROM PLANET EARTH (PG) One can pretty much expect the small animation houses to release one of these harmless, uninspired kiddie flicks every month. Did your kid love Monster vs Aliens? Then they’re bound to momentarily enjoy Escape from Planet Earth while you catch a quick nap or check out the Oscar nominee playing next door. Nobody expects cartoons like Escape from Planet Earth to compete with Pixar’s animated features for awards; they’re made to replace babysitters and entertain kids for 90 minutes. A space adventurer, Scorch Supernova (v. Brendan Fraser), is captured on Earth by the villainous General Shanker (v. William Shatner, who provides some of the movie’s most entertaining voice work). Shanker is making a fortune off his alien captives’ technological innovations. His latest prisoner is Scorch’s brainy brother, Gary (v. Rob Corddry, an odd vocal choice considering his comic persona is certainly not built around his intelligence). Now the Supernova bros must work together to get back home. The animation is as shiny as the story is recycled. Other cartoons have hurt worse, but anything that wastes the genius of Ricky Gervais should be eyed with a bit of extra skepticism.

FROM UP ON POPPY HILL (PG) 2011. Legendary animator Hayao Miyazaki collaborates with his son Goro’s second feature. (His first was Tales from Earthsea.) As the 1964 Tokyo Olympics approach, a group of teenagers in Yokohama seek to save their school clubhouse. The voice cast includes Gillian Anderson, Sarah Bolger, Beau Bridges, Jamie Lee Curtis, Bruce Dern, Christina Hendricks, Chris Noth, Aubre Plaza and Anton Yelchin. Japan’s biggest domestic hit of 2011 won the Best Animation Film prize from the Awards of the Japanese Academy. 

GINGER & ROSA (PG-13) Two teenage girls grow up in 1960s London as inseparable friends, but as the Cuban Missile Crisis and nuclear annihilation loom, Ginger (Elle Fanning) and Rosa (Alice Englert, Beautiful Creatures) clash over love. Writer-director Sally Potter has not done much high profile work since 1992’s Orlando with Tilda Swinton. The film has picked up a few awards, including a couple of for Fanning’s work; the Santa Barbara International Film Festival’s Virtuoso Award and the Valladolid International Film Festival’s Best Actress prize. With Christina Hendricks, Timothy Spall, Annette Bening, Oliver Platt and Alessandro Nivola.

A GOOD DAY TO DIE HARD (R) Do audiences find Bruce Willis’ New York Detective John McClane running into trouble for a fifth time, in Russia, with his CIA operative son (Jack Reacher’s Jai Courtney), believable? Does it matter? Maybe. R-rated action is not doing so hot, with Arnold’s The Last Stand and Sly’s Bullet to the Head both underperforming their already low expectations. Respectable but unexciting action director John Moore (Behind Enemy Lines, Flight of the Phoenix, The Omen and Max Payne) should be better than Live and Let Die Hard’s Len Wiseman.

HABEMUS PAPAM (NR) 2011. The fifth annual Cinecitta series, sponsored by the Department of Romance Languages, continues with the newest film by Palme d'Or winner Nanni Moretti (The Son's Room). Habemus Papam, or We Have a Pope, is a crowd-pleasing light dramedy about the newly elected pope, Cardinal Melville (Michel Piccoli), who struggles with his newfound papacy so much that the Vatican hires a shrink to help him accept his new role. (UGA MLC, Room 148)

HANK AARON: CHASING THE DREAM (NR) 1995. The University of Georgia’s George Foster Peabody Awards and Peabody Awards Collection presents three Peabody Award winning baseball documentaries. This feature documentary follows Atlanta Brave great Hank Aaron as he slugged his way to the top of the record books by besting Babe Ruth’s all time home run record. The 1996 Peabody Award winner was also nominated for the Academy Award for Best Feature Documentary. Writer-director Michael Tollin went on to direct Radio, starring Cuba Gooding, Jr. (UGA Russell Library)

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.

HOLY MOTORS (NR) Leos Carax directs this intriguing French Surrealist film about a night with Monsieur Oscar, a man who drives throughout Paris, stopping to fulfill appointments where he is expected to be – and becomes – someone different each time. With Denis Lavant, Eva Mendes and Edith Scob. (Ciné)

IDENTITY THIEF (R) Unfortunately, stars Melissa McCarthy (an Oscar nominee for Bridesmaids) and Jason Bateman are better than this more-annoying-than-funny odd couple road comedy. With two kids and another on the way, Sandy Patterson (Bateman) is struggling to make ends meet. Having his identity stolen by friendless Diana (McCarthy) only further aggravates his financial distress. In desperation, Sandy travels to Florida to bring his tormentor to justice. Inexplicably and unnecessarily on their heels are a couple of drug enforcers (Genesis Rodriguez and Tip “T.I.” Harris) and a mean ass bounty hunter (a pretty much wasted Robert Patrick). Strangely, the gags work best when Bateman’s straight man and McCarthy’s manic criminal bond rather than fight. Too bad the mean-spirited comic scenarios cooked up by screenwriter Craig Mazin (Scary Movies 3 and 4 and The Hangover: Parts II and III) lack originality. The punch lines lack the subtlety that brings out Bateman’s greatness. Director Seth Gordon (The King of Kong and Horrible Bosses) and his hilarious stars have done and will do comedy better.

THE INCREDIBLE BURT WONDERSTONE (PG-13) Aging stage musicians Burt Wonderstone (Steve Carell) and Anton Marvelton (Steve Buscemi) look to reheat their act after the stunts of a street magician (Jim Carrey) makes the magical duo look stale. Carell seems well cast and the additions of Olivia Wilde and Alan Arkin bring hope. However, Carrey feels too old for the hip, David Blaine/Criss Angel–like role. Longtime television director Don Scardino is directing his first feature film since 1999. With James Gandolfini and Jay Mohr.

IT’S A GIRL! (NR) For Women’s History Month, the University of Georgia’s Institute for Women’s Studies is sponsoring several screenings of films concerning modern issues facing women across the world. The documentary, It’s a Girl!, from director Evan Grae Davis, examines the disappearance of girls in India, China and other parts of the world. The UN estimates “gendercide” has led to the deaths of as many as 200 million girls. It’s a Girl! tells the stories of abandoned girls, trafficked girls, the mothers who have bravely fought to save their daughters and the mothers who will kill for a boy. (UGA MLC, Room 148)

JACK REACHER (PG-13) The episodic exploits of Lee Child’s popular literary character, a former Military Policeman turned drifter, would make a better television series than movie franchise, but star Tom Cruise and writer-director Christopher McQuarrie (an Academy Award winner for his Usual Suspects script) pull off the big screen feat as entertainingly as possible. In this adaptation of Child’s One Shot, Cruise’s Reacher investigates the murder of five random people, allegedly committed by a sniper he knew in Iraq. Naturally, the plot gets thicker as Reacher stirs it. Jack Reacher might have been better with a little more Dirty Harry/Don Siegel/70s vigilante edge, but it will make audiences forget they don’t care for star-reliant, big budget action movies like they used to. As written by McQuarrie, Reacher is as well-equipped to verbally decimate an enemy as he is to physically dominate him, a trait which helps viewers forget the albeit exquisitely molded Cruise (remember, he’s 50) does not quite match Reacher’s burly 6-foot 5-inch, 210 to 250 pound physique. Jack Reacher accomplishes its mission—divert an audience’s attention for an enjoyably solid two-plus hours—as efficiently and capably as its title character.

JACK THE GIANT SLAYER (PG-13) Another reteaming of director Bryan Singer with his Public Access/Usual Suspects/Apt Pupil/Valkryie scripter, Academy Award winner Christopher McQuarrie, should be more exciting, intriguing and lasting than Jack the Giant Slayer. While far from a bad fantasy film, this retooled telling of the classic children’s stories, Jack the Giant Killer and Jack and the Beanstalk, does little to fire the imagination once the credits roll. We all know the story: young Jack (Marcus Hoult, whose romzom Warm Bodies showed loads more creativity) gets some magic beans, from which a giant beanstalk grows. At the top of the leafy, green ladder is a land full of giants who have a taste for human flesh. Of course, this new telling has to involve a love interest, headstrong Princess Isabelle (Eleanor Tomlinson), who Jack sets out to rescue. The mostly British cast is top-notch—Ian McShane as the king, Ewan McGregor as the king’s number one guardsman, Bill Nighy as the voice of the lead giant—and Stanley Tucci’s always a swell villain. Jack the Giant Slayer will kill an afternoon pleasantly enough (and better than last summer’s fairy re-tale Snow White and the Huntsman), but the special effects-acle lacks any lasting magic.

THE LAST EXORCISM PART II (PG-13) Found footage flicks like The Last Exorcism and sub-genre granddaddy of them all, The Blair Witch Project, are hard and mostly unnecessary to sequelize. Yet here is the rather dumbly titled, The Last Exorcism Part II. (Should the first one be retitled, Not Quite the Last Exorcism?) Poor Nell Sweeter (Ashley Bell) escapes the unexplained cult in the woods and begins a new life in a New Orleans home for wayward girls. She gets a job as a motel maid; she meets a boy (Spencer Treat Clark, the little kid from Unbreakable). She’s also still possessed or being pursued by the demon, Abalam. The movie never seems quite sure which it is. Anything interesting about the mysterious narrative of the first film is long gone. The sequel complicates the mythology more than it explains anything, and the movie does so boringly, lacking almost any scares, after a strong opening sequence. Shameless self-promoter Eli Roth, who serves as a producer, described the movie as really scary on a recent talk show appearance. If he finds this really scary, maybe it’s a good thing he hasn’t directed a horror movie since 2007.

LES MISERABLES (PG-13) 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 nominee 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 nominee 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 nearly a lock, though 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 entire 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!

THE LIFE AND TIMES OF HANK GREENBERG (NR) 1998. The University of Georgia’s George Foster Peabody Awards and Peabody Awards Collection presents three Peabody Award winning baseball documentaries. The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg recalls the career of major league baseball’s first major Jewish superstar. This Peabody Award winner also picked up prizes from film festivals in Chicago, Columbus, Florida, the Hamptons, Kansas City, Las Vegas, New York and Washington; the National Board of Review named the film its Best Documentary in 2000. (UGA Russell Library)

• OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL (PG) First and foremost, Sam Raimi’s The Wizard of Oz prequel is no Wizard; it’s not even Return to Oz, the very dark, very underrated 1985 sequel. Disney’s latest family blockbuster reveals the wizard’s own cyclonic entry to Oz. Carnival magician and con man Oscar Diggs (James Franco, whose performance is nothing if not inconsistent) meets three witches—Theodora (Mila Kunis), Evanora (Rachel Weisz) and Glinda (Michelle Williams)—who believe him to be the great wizard whose appearance in Oz was prophesied. In the void left by the recently deceased king, Oscar must determine which witches are wicked and which are good. Raimi trots out his usual visual wizardry, and Oz is as successful as his first Spider-Man entry once it gets going. The middle act gets a bit logy as the good people of Oz prepare for battle via sewing montages. The climax is filled with whiz-band special effects, used effectively, and ties in well with the classic film being emulated. I just wish Raimi had chosen to make his Wicked Witch via makeup, like the original’s Margaret Hamilton, as opposed to CGI. Oz won’t make anyone forget the original, but it doesn’t shame its memory either.

QUARTET (PG-13) In his directorial debut, Dustin Hoffman fashions a delightful trifle filled with deliciously British performances from Maggie Smith (who was nominated for a Golden Globe), Tom Courtenay, Billy Connolly, Pauline Collins, Michael Gambon and more. At Beecham House, a home for retired musicians, plans are afoot for a gala to celebrate Verdi’s birthday. Drama arrives in the form of aging diva, Jean Horton, who is also the ex-wife of another resident (Courtenay). Smith is her usual grand self (as her actual age, not older, for once!). It’s wonderful to see Courtenay (twice an Academy Award nominee for 1982’s The Dresser and 1965’s Doctor Zhivago) and Collins (herself an Oscar nominee for 1989’s Shirley Valentine) as featured players. Renowned scene stealer Connolly is up to his old tricks as aged horndog, Wilf. Hoffman unfussily directs Oscar winner Ronald Harwood’s play with an actor’s generosity for his actors. The characters and performances drive this entertaining little film, with a complimentary emphasis on little. Anyone who enjoyed their stay at The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel should also enjoy the performances of Quartet.

RACE TO NOWHERE (PG-13) Director Vicki Abeles documents the pressures placed on teachers and schoolchildren to perform in America’s achievement culture. Featured in the film are Dr. Madeline Levine (Clinical Psychologist and author of the best-seller, The Price of Privilege), Dr. Wendy Mogel (Clinical Psychologist and author of The Blessing of a Skinned Knee), Dr. Kenneth Ginsburg (Adolescent Medicine Specialist at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia), Dr. Deborah Stipek (Dean of the School of Education at Stanford University), Dr. Denise Pope (Challenge Success cofounder), and Sara Bennett (Stop Homework founder). Part of Volunteer UGA’s Film Festival, the screening will be followed by a discussion. (UGA MLC, Room 267)

REALITY (R) Wow. The star of the latest film from Matteo Garrone, who stunned the world with his Italian crime masterpiece Gomorrah, has been imprisoned for murder for two decades. Aniello Arena, a member of the Volterra Detention Center’s acting troupe, was only allowed to shoot Reality during the day. Arena plays Luciano, a fishmonger that becomes obsessed with becoming a contestant on a reality show.  This Palme d’Or nominee won Cannes’ Grand Prize of the Jury.

RISE OF THE GUARDIANS (PG) Author William Joyce’s very cool idea is brought to the big screen by first-time animated feature director Peter Ramsey and fantastical executive producer Guillermo del Toro. Holiday legends North (aka Santa, who is voiced very Russianly by Alec Baldwin), Bunny (v. Hugh Jackman) and Tooth (v. Isla Fisher) are joined by Jack Frost (v. Chris Pine) as they do battle with the evil Pitch (v. Jude Law). Imagining massive audiences of children falling hard for this potential animated franchise is not hard. The computer-generated animation is engaging (though one must wonder what thought process led to such an unappealingly birdlike appearance for the Tooth Fairy), and the narrative is action-packed. Adults will be intermittently bored by the pedestrian plotting and obvious obstacles placed in front of the legendary heroes. Hopefully, a sequel will take increased advantage of the extraordinary concept rather than relying so much upon tired cartoon storytelling.

SAFE HAVEN (PG-13) One thing I enjoy about reviewing movies is having a readymade excuse for watching sappy romances like Safe Haven. I’ve been curious as to what the big mystery is since the first trailer; plus, Julianne Hough is really attractive. Unfortunately, the latest Nicholas Sparks adaptation, set in another North Carolina paradise, is one solved mystery away from just being one couple’s two hour how we met story. Pretty, young Katie is on the run from a constantly drunk, really sweaty cop (“Revolution” star David Lyons). Lucky for her, a hot widower, Alex (Josh Duhamel), with two cute kids is ready to love again. Wondering how this romance is ultimately different from Sleeping with the Enemy? Then prepare for the laughable, Shyamalan-esque, climactic twist. Still, Safe Haven is competently, if unexcitingly, made by Academy Award nominee Lasse Hallstrom, but The Notebook need not worry. Its legacy as the gold standard for this sort of Sparks-ian cinematic page turner is under no threat.

SIDE EFFECTS (R) Acclaimed filmmaker Steven Soderbergh has intimated that Side Effects is his final film, which is a shame. The Academy Award winning director would be going out at the top of his game, but with a movie that feels more good than great. However, Side Effects, written by Soderbergh’s writing collaborator on The Informant! and Contagion, is hard to talk about without spoiling any of the many entertaining twists. Here’s the most spoiler-free plot synopsis I could devise. Emily Taylor’s (Rooney Mara, Lisbeth Salander in the English-language The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) struggles with depression after her financier husband, Martin (Channing Tatum), is released from prison lead her into the care of Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law). But the drug prescribed by Dr. Banks has deadly side effects for Emily. Soderbergh precisely dissects this medical mystery, in which everyone’s motives are suspect. Law charms but to what end? Is Catherine Zeta-Jones’ fellow shrink everything she seems to be? And what about Emily herself? A lot of the film’s suspenseful fun comes from unraveling the mystery. While not Soderbergh’s best, Side Effects heats up an early March theater better than this winter’s mostly frozen flick-sticks. (Ciné)

SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK (R) David O. Russell’s dram-rom-com and multiple Academy Award nominee 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 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.

SNITCH (PG-13) The new actioner from The Rock, né Dwayne Johnson, is a lot more serious than you’d expect a movie from a former stuntman, director Ric Roman Waugh. (Knowing cowriter Justin Haythe wrote Revolutionary Road should mitigate some of the surprise at Snitch’s serious side.) Construction bigwig John Matthews (Johnson) will do anything to lessen his son Jason’s jail time after a drug arrest. Matthews convinces one of his ex-con employees, Daniel (Jon Bernthal, late of “The Walking Dead”), to introduce him to a drug dealer, Malik (Michael K. Williams, aka Omar Little aka Chalky White), in order to cut a deal with federal prosecutor Joanne Keeghan (Susan Sarandon), who could use a big bust to boost her congressional campaign. Refreshingly, Johnson spends most of the movie in desperate dad mode as opposed to real life action figure. Appearances be damned, Snitch is no '80s action rehash; the movie’s got too much gravitas for Ah-nuld, even in his prime. All these kind assessments get smashed by the ridiculous 18-wheeler chase with the drug cartel that concludes the picture. Oh, well. The first hour and a half’s better than expected. 

THE TWILIGHT SAGA: BREAKING DAWN—PART 2 (PG-13) The Twilight Saga has consistently improved as filmmakers have changed and the series has… um… matured? Bella (Kristen Stewart) is now a vampire; she and her husband, Edward (Robert Pattinson), have a new baby, Renesmee, whose existence threatens the vampire world’s ruling family, the Volturi (led by Michael Sheen). Now the Cullens, the Quileute wolves (including Taylor Lautner’s Jacob) and several blood-sucking pals must make a stand against the invading Italian vamps. Stephenie Meyer’s phenomenon concludes as satisfactorily as one would expect, though Breaking Dawn—Part 1 exceeds its follow-up, mostly thanks to the former’s more horrific plot. Part 2’s concluding battle merely proves Meyer’s non-monsters aren’t really vampires; they are romantic superheroes. The terrible CGI work—the needlessly computer-generated baby Renesmee vies for the worst special effect of 1992—shows the lack of serious craftsmanship with which this material has been handled.

UPSIDE DOWN (PG-13) Adam (Jim Sturgess, who’s been to these romantic, ambitious sci-fi lands before in Cloud Atlas) and Eve (Kirsten Dunst) live on twinned worlds with opposite gravities. Adam’s is a humble world, while Eve’s is one of affluence. Ten years after the teens were separated, Adam seeks to reconnect with his love. Writer-director Juan Solanas’ features sounds intriguing, if it does not get bogged down in its own heady ideas. With the ever excellent Timothy Spall. 

WARM BODIES (PG-13) Having witnessed many a zombie apocalypse, I can say with complete assuredness that Warm Bodies is not your usual end of the world via the flesh-eating living dead flick. This zomrom stars X-Men: First Class Nicholas Hoult (poised for a big year with March’s Jack the Giant Slayer) as R, who is not your typical zombie. Blessed (or cursed) with a rather rich inner life, R still munches brains but he’s conflicted about it, especially after meeting Julie (Teresa Palmer, Take Me Tonight). She kickstarts his heart, starting a chain reaction amongst all the corpses (the survivors’ term for zombies), except for the too far gone Boneys. Working from Isaac Marion’s oddly delightful premise, filmmaker Jonathan Levine, who’s on quite a roll (he’s 4-for-4 in my book) after 50/50, whips up a still horrific, mostly romantic early Valentine for adventurous couples and soft-hearted horror fans. Levine retains his spot on the young filmmaker’s to watch list (that maybe only I am keeping). Not wasting Rob Corddry, as R’s BLDF (Best Living Dead Friend), and John Malkovich, as Julie’s overbearing, military father, is another of the film’s boons. Ignore the mawkish CW-meets-Twilight marketing and enjoy some rare bloody romance/heartfelt horror.

WRECK-IT RALPH (PG) 2012 was a good year for animation that included Academy Award winner Brave, Frankenweenie, ParaNorman and now Wreck-It Ralph. In Disney's latest, Wreck-It Ralph (v. John C. Reilly), the bad guy from popular arcade game Fix-It Felix Jr., decides he wants to be a good guy. Leaving the safety of his own regenerating world, Ralph enters a Halo-ish first-person shooter named Hero's Duty in search of a medal. Too bad Ralph is better at wrecking things than fixing them. This cute, inventive cartoon boasts several creative game worlds like the cavity-friendly candyland of Sugar Rush and a treasure trove of Easter eggs for lifelong and newer gamers. Director Rich Moore definitely learned a thing or two from his time working on the inside joke-heavy worlds of Matt Groening, "The Simpsons" and "Futurama." The voicework by Reilly, Sarah Silverman, Jack McBrayer, Jane Lynch, Alan Tudyk, Mindy Kaling and more is top-notch, but one expects that level of competence from a high-profile animated feature. It's the plentiful heart and laughter Wreck-It Ralph offers viewers of all ages, gamer or not, that sets it apart.

ZERO DARK THIRTY (R) 2012 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 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.