This heavily theatrical take on the old Russian classic is only a half-success. Directed by Joe Wright, it’s mostly staged inside a lavishly constructed playhouse, except when it’s not. And we watch the drama unfold between Anna (Keira Knightley), her pill of a husband (Jude Law) and her cavalry officer lover (Aaron Johnson). Its well-written script leaps between high comedy and piercing drama, and the film has its moments, but it’s a bit too frantic at times. R (some sexuality and violence).
This thriller from director/star Ben Affleck just plain works. Based on unclassified documents, the story is set in 1979 when 52 Americans were taken hostage in Tehran by Iranian revolutionaries. Six U.S. State officials escape and hide at the Canadian ambassador’s home. CIA operative Antonio Mendez (Affleck) concocts a plan: fly into Iran, pose as a film crew scouting locations, fly out again with the six Americans playing the roles of crew members. With a sharp script and deft direction, the movie is tense and entertaining. Oscar buzz is justified. R (language and some violent images). 2:00.
Filmmaker Robert Zemeckis is back with this exciting and terrific film. Whip Whitaker (Denzel Washington) is a pilot who, after a night of drinking and snorting cocaine, crash lands a routine flight to Atlanta, rescuing most of his passengers and crew. An instant hero, Whitaker knows that other people know what was in his system, and the dynamic dance plays out from there. It’s sophisticated storytelling, with the audience unsure of how to feel about such a conflicted protagonist, but Washington is marvelous, as usual, and it’s a highly entertaining flight. R (drug and alcohol abuse, language, sexuality/nudity and an intense action sequence).
THE GUILT TRIP
Barbra Streisand returns to the big screen here, and the result is not bad. Streisand plays Joyce, the long-widowed mother of inventor Andy (Seth Rogen). Out of guilt, Andy asks Joyce to accompany him on a work trip. The secret mission is to hook up Joyce with a long-lost beau. A tight if formulaic script does well enough, but the performers here do a lot of the lifting. It’s a sweet movie, in its way. PG-13 (language and some risque material).
THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY
This first of three movies to be extracted from J.R.R. Tolkien’s slim novel is moderately engaging. Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), a homey hobbit ill-suited to dangerous adventures, gets mixed up in just such a quest. Bilbo and Gandalf (Ian McKellen) and 13 dwarves set out to reclaim the ravaged kingdom or Erebor. Peter Jackson is up to his old tricks, and it’s pleasant enough, but 3 films seem a bit extreme and the controversial 48 frames-per-second that Jackson used is awful. See it in 24 if you can. PG-13 (extended sequences of intense fantasy action violence, and frightening images).
This new Tom Cruise vehicle does its work sleekly and well. However, to be honest, it’s a little hard to watch given recent news events. Jack Reacher (Cruise) is off the grid as a cop, ex-military sniper and investigator. An accused killer, coming out of a coma, asks for Reacher to help clear his name. Rosamund Pike plays Helen, the defense attorney who’s on the case. Eventually, it all boils down to The Zec, played with relish by Warner Herzog. It’s a sharp film, but with lots of gun violence. PG-13 (violence, language and some drug material).
KILLING THEM SOFTLY
This stimulating black comedy from Kiwi director Andrew Dominik (“The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford”) is a good one. Brad Pitt stars as hitman Jackie Cogan in 2008, much of the dialogue in the film concerning the financial difficulties experienced by contract killers. It begins with the robbery of a high-stakes poker game, which sets of a flurry of violent events. While much of the story is familiar, it’s a taut, beautifully shot, pungent film that’s worth the time. R (violence, sexual references, pervasive language and some drug use).
LIFE OF PI
Based on Yann Martel’s beautiful little book about a young man and the sea and a tiger, this film transforms into a big, imposing and often lovely 3-D experience. Ang Lee directs and while not all of it works, there is a lot to admire. Pi sets sail with his family on a freighter, accompanying a slew of zoo creatures. Terrible weather. The ship sinks. All die except for Pi, a zebra, a hyena, an orangutan and a Bengal Tiger named Richard Parker. The adventures and astonishments keep on coming. PG (emotional thematic content throughout, some scary action sequences and peril).
Steven Spielberg returns with this impressive biopic about our 16th president, complete in almost every way. Based on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book, the film focuses tightly on the final four months of Lincoln’s life and his political maneuvering in support of the 13th Amendment’s abolition of slavery. It’s a fascinating backroom movie, hushed and intimate. Daniel Day-Lewis is magnificently human as Lincoln, and the supporting cast almost as impressive. It is a fascinating and careful examination of an incredible figure and time. PG-13 (intense scene of war violence, images of carnage and brief strong language).
PLAYING FOR KEEPS
This romantic comedy follows onetime Scottish soccer star George (Gerard Butler), who finds himself down and nearly out. He’s moved to suburban Virginia to be close to his preteen son. George’s ex (Jessica Biel) is engaged to be remarried. But you never know! Maybe she’ll get back with the vaguely unsympathetic protaganist. The women in the film exist to prop up Butler’s fabulousness. Not a lot to like here. PG-13 (some sexual situations, language and a brief intense image).
In the not-too-distant future, North Korea has invaded American soil. Our only hope is a gaggle of high school kids who form a guerilla army calling itself the Wolverines, after the local football mascot. Chris Hemsworth takes on the old Patrick Swayze role, and there’s enough to like about him and the general reworkings of the 1984 cult-classic. There’s plenty of righteous kills, explosions, patriotic speeches and righteous kills. It’s not a disaster. Just drab. PG-13 (sequences of intense war violence and action, and language).
RISE OF THE GUARDIANS
1 1/2 stars
This, unfortunately, is the worst animated movie to ever wear the DreamWorks logo. Based on a children’s book series, a team of Bunny (Easter variety, voiced by Hugh Jackman), North (aka Santa, Alec Baldwin), Tooth (Fairy, Isla Fisher) and the silent Sandman. They need the help of newcomer Jack Frost (Chris Pine) to defeat Pitch, short for Pitch Black, the night-terror voiced by Jude Law threatening to rid the children of the world of the belief in magical figures. It’s harmless enough, but not good. PG (thematic elements and some mildly scary action).
Bond is back for his 23rd installment, and this is more like it. Daniel Craig returns as 007, charged with rescuing the world from a computer savvy adversary, perhaps the most singular Bond villain in a decade, played by Javier Bardem. Sam Mendes directs stunning action sequences, and the return of Dame Judi Dench and various other recastings works well this time around. While “Quantum of Solace” largely failed, this installment returns Bond to its rightful, highly entertaining place, while also exploring some new territory. PG-13 (intense violent sequences throughout, some sexuality, language and smoking). 2:23. 3 1/2 stars.
THIS IS 40
2 1/2 stars
In the latest film from Judd Apatow, Pete (Paul Rudd) and Debbie (Leslie Mann) reprise their roles from “Knocked Up.” They’ve reached age 40; there are money problems; Pete’s label is on the verge of insolvency; their sex life has cooled; Debbie becomes pregnant again. Rudd and Mann are incredibly skilled comedic actors, and there’s a lot to like here, with Albert Brooks and John Lithgow supporting to boot. But Apatow seems to hesitate going deep enough, starting out well and bravely, and then settling for less and less. R (sexual content, crude humor, pervasive language and some drug material).
THE TWILIGHT SAGA: BREAKING DAWN - PART 2
1 1/2 stars
Please let this be the last. The final installment of the “Twilight” franchise, hopefully, is strictly for the fans. Newly vampired Bella (Kristen Stewart) is adjusting to her new powers, new life, new child, and the uneasy truce with the werewolves led by Jacob (Taylor Lautner). There’s some Edward (Robert Pattinson) of course, and a bright spot turn by Michael Sheen as Aro, head of the undead Volturi, but largely this comes off as a particularly smug fashion shoot. PG-13 (sequences of violence including disturbing images, some sensuality and partial nudity).
2 1/2 stars
The latest from Disney Animation is a wild and imaginative exploration of a video game fantasy, i.e. what happens in the lives of our favorite game characters when we’re not playing them? Ralph (voiced by John C. Reilly) is weary of his prescribed lot in life: he’s not a bad guy, so why does he have to play a bad guy in everybody’s favorite arcade game “Fix-It Felix Jr.”? Ralph breaks out and goes on the run, teaming up with Vanellope (Sarah Silverman) to traverse the video game world landscape and grapple with the modern-era game soldiers led by Sgt. Calhoun (Jane Lynch). It’s fun enough, but a bit hectic. PG (some rude humor and mild action/violence).