by Jeff Boam
Opening This Weekend
Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz
In emulating the schlocky drive-in double features from the ‘70s, indie mavericks Quentin Tarantino (Jackie Brown) and Robert Rodriguez (Sin City) put together a Grindhouse two-fer to die for … only nobody came. Though Tarantino’s entry Death Proof was eventually given some plaudits by critics after a longer cut was released on DVD, the movie’s financial stall was seen as the first chink in this auteur’s armor (both Kill Bill chapters had netted healthy returns for Miramax). With the box office success and awards afforded Inglourious Basterds, however (Waltz, Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor), Q found himself back on top—just in time to give audiences his take on Spaghetti Westerns. In this R-rated revisionist western, the director presents the story of Django (Foxx), a slave whose brutal history with his former owners lands him face-to-face with German-born bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz (Waltz), the only man who can help him to rescue his wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) from a sadistic plantation owner (Leonardo DiCaprio). The Plus: The players. Tarantino gave film audiences Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, so his Spaghetti Western throwback deserves John Q. Filmgoer’s full attention. Also, having an A-list cast that includes Foxx (Mr. and Mrs. Smith), Waltz (The Green Hornet), DiCaprio (J. Edgar), Washington (ABC’s Scandal), and Samuel L. Jackson (The Avengers) on board certainly helps matters. The Minus: The competition. Tarantino opened Basterds in the dog days of August against little competition. Django, however, faces a full slate of star-studded holiday blockbusters.
Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe
Australian-born Hugh Jackman is best known for his portrayal of Adamantium-clawed mutant Wolverine in the X-Men movie series (X-Men, X2: X-Men United, X-Men: The Last Stand, X-Men Origins: Wolverine), but he’s truly an actor who easily transitions from stage (Oklahoma! On Broadway) to big screen (Real Steel) to small screen (host, 81st Annual Academy Awards) with ease. True, moviegoers are already lining up for his Wolverine sequel, but the fact that he has won a Tony award (2003, The Boy from Oz) speaks well for his involvement in this adaptation of Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil’s long-running Broadway musical Les Miserables, itself an adaptation of Victor Hugo’s classic novel. In this as-yet-unrated musical set in 19th-century France, an ex-prisoner named Jean Valjean (Jackman) seeks redemption with a ruthless policeman (Crowe) in dogged pursuit. The Plus: The material. Les Miserables is an international stage sensation that’s been seen by 60 million people and adapted into 21 different languages (read: there’s definitely an audience). Here, Oscar-winner Tom Hooper (The King’s Speech) directs a cast that includes Jackman (Real Steel), Crowe (The Man with the Iron Fists), Anne Hathaway (The Dark Knight Rises), Amanda Seyfried (In Time), Eddie Redmayne (My Week with Marilyn), Helena Bonham Carter (Dark Shadows), Geoffrey Rush (Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides), and Sacha Baron Cohen (The Dictator). The Minus: The odds. For the box office success of every star-studded Chicago and Mamma Mia!, there’s a Nine or Sparkle waiting in the wings.
Billy Crystal, Bette Midler
Frequent Academy Award host Billy Crystal hasn’t headlined a flick since Analyze That, which bowed 10 years ago (doing a voice cameo in 2006’s Cars doesn’t count). Before he reprises his vocal role as Mike Wazowski in next year’s Monsters University, however, moviegoers can catch him in Parental Guidance, a flick for which he also provided the screenplay. In this PG-rated comedy, old school grandfather Artie (Crystal) meets his match when he and his eager-to-please wife Diane (Midler) agree to babysit their three grandkids when their type-A modern parents (Marisa Tomei, Tom Everett Scott) go away for work. The Plus: The counter-programming. The AARP demographic can’t be ignored. Consider It’s Complicated, a comedy starring Meryl Streep that opened on Christmas day in 2009 and went on to rake in more than $112 million at the domestic box office. The Minus: The odds. This same demographic traditionally hits the award-baiting films hard (Lincoln, Les Miserables, etc…) around this time of year, which thins the herd for this quirky buddy picture. Consider The Guilt Trip, which opened below expectations just last week.
Tom Cruise, Rosamund Pike
Jacked up on talent against near-impossible odds, Tom Cruise’s take on Lee Child’s literary triumph reaches short of greatness but comes damn close. It’s a slow burn, mind you— not so much in terms of a slow-building story, but in terms of the movie slowly growing on you. Based on the 18 bestselling novels, Child certainly knows Jack about ace storytelling. And if Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol’s quarter of a billion dollar box office take has anything to say about it, Cruise definitely knows jack about action. It’s the talents of screenwriter/director Christopher McQuarrie, however, that truly jacks into a funny, exciting, and occasionally bone-crunching detective tale. In this PG-13-rated crime, a homicide investigation into a trained military sniper who shot five random victims dregs up a former military policeman (Cruise) with a knack for seeking out justice. In regards to 6’ 6” ex-military policeman Reacher, there is the ‘lil matter of casting 5’6” Cruise. Regardless of bah humbug expectations, he realizes the grit and spit of the amazingly well. He sells it as does the captain of the ship, McQuarrie. What starts out as a standard-issue procedural crescendos into an active, clever, and often funny who-done-it. There are some cliched credibility-shredding moments completely indicative of ’80s blockbuster actioners (the standoff at the end pits out hero against a boss and under-boss in a hardscrapple location) and the flick doesn’t click from right the get-go. Still, Jack Reacher ultimately amounts to a smart brass knuckles adventure even if its star doesn’t meet persnickety readers’ height requirement. Bottom line: Far and away, a solid thriller.
This is 40
Paul Rudd, Leslie Mann
Judd Apatow made a brilliantly sharp comedy about being 40 with a cast that includes Paul Rudd and Leslie Mann, but we’re not here to discuss the yuk-tastic flick 40-Year-Old-Virgin. Instead, the subject of this review proves to be Apatow’s humdrum, This is 40. With his Over-the-Hill follow-up, it’s simply a matter of: Come for the funny, stay for a bummer. Truthfully, it’s not that the movie is unfunny. In fact, there are many laugh-out-loud moments among the tired one-to-grow-on life lessons. It’s just that Apatow’s Knocked Up, Funny People, and even Virgin held higher stakes than this whiny ode to the Big Four Oh. Oh, the subject of aging is certainly worth pondering, but This is 40 — with its many strands and characters building toward a climax that never really climaxes — feels like a listless dramedy pilot on pay cable that jumps the shark before it airs. In this R-rated Knocked Up spin-off, moviegoers get caught up on the married-with-children lives of Paul (Rudd) and Debbie (Mann), a couple dealing with a credit crunch, two precocious kids (Maude and Iris Apatow), and the inevitability of passing their prime. Ultimately, there are some laughs, fine performances, and a few pitfalls to keep the stakes interesting, but this comedy feels rather pedestrian and less thought-provoking and topical in comparison with the side-splitting projects that the writer/director has recently produced (Bridesmaids, HBO’s Girls). Even with A-list talent and jokes, it amounts to being as high-kicking as Thirtysomething if that particular program had been allowed to drone on for 10 seasons. Bottom line: This is average.
The Guilt Trip
Barbra Streisand, Seth Rogen
Kind of a broken mirror that happens to have two faces, Barbra Streisand’s latest is a Guilt-free fissure that’s far from a Trip to bountiful. In this PG-13-rated comedy, an inventor (Rogen) and his widow mom (Streisand) hit the road together so he can sell his latest invention. This mediocre buddy comedy’s biggest stroke of genius proves to be the casting of Streisand and Rogen. They kibbitz, yenta it up, and exchange one-liners like a well-oiled Jewish vaudeville team composed of Marx, Ritz, or Howard siblings … only Vaudeville’s dead. Oh, the flick certainly has heart. The problem is that predictability runs through its veins. Thanks to some clever moments, this comedy is not so much a case of poor writing as it is lazy writing. Far from a guilty pleasure, it leaves audiences wondering, “Was this trip really necessary?” Bottom Line: Meet the Schlockers.
Anthony Hopkins, Helen Mirren
A fastidious piece of popcorn trying to make sense of a complex work of art, this portrait of the Master of Suspense simply comes off with too many Hitch-es. In this PG-13-rated presumptuous ‘true story’ detailing the difficult production of the famed Alfred Hitchcock classic Psycho, the auteur’s (Hopkins) fascination with his actresses (Scarlett Johansson, Jessica Biel) and a real-life serial killer gets explored. This kinda sorta bio-pic tries peeling back the layers of both the filmmaker and his long suffering wife, but the armchair psychology feels as fake as Hopkins’ prosthetics. The screenplay brings up heavy tangents that the flick’s zingy flow and pithy writing can’t handle. Despite a clever presentation (Hitchcock talks to the audience as if he was presenting his TV program and talks to serial killer Ed Gein), the ace performances aren’t enough to keep moviegoers suspensefully vested. Bottom line: For the Birds.
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
Martin Freeman, Ian McKellan
Despite its title, An Unexpected Journey thankfully delivers more of the same epic adventure as a certain Three-Rings extravaganza. In this PG-13-rated fantasy, Bilbo Baggins gets swept into an epic quest to reclaim the lost Dwarf Kingdom of Erebor from a fearsome dragon. Truthfully, it feels, looks, and plays out like a seamless prequel to the Lord of the Rings. Unlike the candy-coated Star Wars prequels, which seem as linked to their much superior predecessors as Adam West’s Batman is to Christian Bale’s Dark Knight, this first of three film series roots itself firmly in Peter Jackson’s overly stuffed interpretation of writer J.R.R. Tolkien’s words. Try as they might, the stakes never feel as high as with LOTR, but it’s still a journey worth taking so long as expectations stay in the bustling hedgerow and not on the misty mountaintop. Bottom line: More middle of the road than Middle Earth.
Daniel Day-Lewis, Joseph Gordon-Levitt
A talky drama that speaks volumes to both history geeks and film geeks alike, Lincoln logs a vaulted place as an honest Abe bio-pic. In this PG-13-rated bio pic, screenwriter Tony Kushner telescopes in on the final years of President Abraham Lincoln (Day-Lewis), from the Civil War and Abolition through suffering through personal demons. Granted, the film demonstrates director Steven Spielberg at his grandstanding best: push-ins in on slack-jawed reaction shots, etc… Still, these telltale filmmaking tics aren’t gratuitously on display because they fit so seamlessly into this true story. Seemingly lit by candlelight, gaslight, and an iridescent lead performance, the action plays out in cold dank offices much more than on sprawling battlefields. At times warm, witty, and explosive, this segment truly cuts to the marrow of the man — warts and all — and plays out like a political thriller in the process. Bottom line: Honestly great.
Playing for Keeps
Gerard Butler, Jessica Biel
Brimming with 300 reasons to despise it, the Ugly Truth about Gerard Butler’s latest is that it’s Playing for Keeps with atrociousness. In this PG-13-rated sports dramedy, a has-been former sports star (Gerald Butler) starts coaching his son’s soccer team in an attempt to get his life together … oh, and maybe plays the field with the players’ moms (Biel, et al). All of the players exhibit wonderful acting chops … just not in this movie. Here, they comprise the equivalent of Goalie of the Dolls. How these stars signed onto this wannabe Afterschool Special based on the pedestrian screenplay just defies logic. From the opening titles, Playing for Keeps colors by numbers like the worst of them, serving up a bad father-making good factory model in the tired tradition of Jingle all the Way. Bottom line: Retch It like Beckham.
Daniel Craig, Judi Dench
Flying so sky high that it nearly touches the heavens, the 23rd James Bond flick marks one of the 50 year-old franchise’s highest points. In this PG-13-rated spy thriller, MI6 agent James Bond (Craig) finds his loyalty to direct superior M (Dench) tested after all of British Intelligence comes under attack from a cyber terrorist from her past (Javier Bardem). Perhaps, more than any other Bond movie, Skyfall manages to peel back the onion layers of this complex killing machine without spoiling the mystery of the mystery man. The movie proves to be a cross-section of the bone-crunching grit and spit that defined the last 2 post-9/11 007 missions and the wit-infused Union Jack swagger of the 20 other chapters that preceded them. Though not letter-perfect, it still ranks among Bond’s top flag-smashing adventures with an ace villain to boot. Bottom line: Double Oh Seventh Heaven.