by Jeff Boam
Opening This Weekend
Naomi Watts, Ewan McGregor
The Impossible marks the second collaboration for Naomi Watts (Eastern Promises) and Ewan McGregor (Salmon Fishing in the Yemen), after they starred together in Marc Foster’s 2005 psychological thriller Stay with Ryan Gosling and Bob Hoskins … and nobody came to see it. Now, they’re reuniting under the direction of Juan Antonio Bayona (The Orphanage). In this PG-13-rated disaster drama based on real events surrounding the 2004 tsunami disaster, a family (Watts, McGregor) vacationing in Thailand finds themselves separated and fighting to find one another amidst one of the worst natural catastrophes of our time. The Plus: The buzz. Since its world premiere at the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival, this film has received numerous awards and nominations, including Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild nods. The Minus: The odds. Overall, it’s a stellar year for award-baiting flicks, especially those already in release and reaping rewards at the box office (Argo, Lincoln, Les Miserables, Silver Linings Playbook). As it finally opens wide in the post-holiday winter doldrums, The Impossible might just find itself coming too late to the party to curry favor with Oscar or audiences.
Matt Damon, John Krasinski
After back-to-back-to-back success in the Bourne series (Identity, Supremacy and Ultimatum for those keeping score), actor Matt Damon pretty much had his pick of projects these days. Continuing on as superspy Jason Bourne, however, wasn’t one of these picks. Instead, he decided to play Scott Thorsen to Michael Douglas’s Liberace in Steven Soderbergh’s Under the Candelabra for HBO and reunited with Good Will Hunting and Gerry director Gus Van Sant for this drama, which is based on a script that he wrote with NBC’s The Office star John Krasinski. In this R-rated drama, a multibillion dollar company sends two of its top salesman (Damon, McNairy) to a small town to convince the locals to lease their land for fracking rights. The Plus: The players. Lest filmgoers forget, Damon already shared an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay (Good Will Hunting). Here, Van Sant (Milk) directs him (The Adjustment Bureau), Krasinski (Big Miracle), Frances McDormand (Moonrise Kingdom), Hal Holbrook (Lincoln), Scoot McNairy (Killing Me Softly), and Titus Welliver (Man on a Ledge). The Minus: The odds. Damon’s last feel-good effort, Cameron Crowe’s We Bought a Zoo, underwhelmed critics and filmgoers alike, which may not bode well for this preachy drama.
Texas Chainsaw Massacre 3D
Alexandra Daddario, Scott Eastwood
Ah, nothing brings a family together like terror! In this R-rated horror sequel from John Luessenhop (Takers), a young woman (Daddario) inherits a Texas estate from a grandmother she never knew she had, only to find a chainsaw-wielding maniac named Leatherface awaiting her in the mansion’s dank cellars. The Plus: The genre. Even with critical wrath and no-name casts, remakes of Halloween, Friday the 13th, and A Nightmare on Elm Street all scared up big box office. The Minus: The odds. Director Marcus Nispel already remade The Texas Chainsaw Massacre in 2003 to the tune of 80 million domestic dollars. Its prequel, 2006’s The Beginning, only took in about half of that, which doesn’t bode well for the sequel, 3D or not.
Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz
Unchained, unleaded, and unforgettable, Quentin Tarantino and Jamie Foxx’s ace Southern-fried collaboration rides high despite a minor saddle sore or two. Let’s talk semantics. For 20 years now, game-changing filmmaker Tarantino has spoken and even helped rewrite the language of world cinema. Close to fluent in its many tongues — be it Hong Kong chop socky (Kill Bill), grindhouse horror (Death Proof), or a good, old-fashioned heist thriller (Reservoir Dogs) — he’s gone so far as to serve as the root of his own entomology, as evinced by all of his pale rider imitators in the ’90s who tried to be “Tarantino-esque.” It comes as a pleasing surprise then that, in tackling the American-born but European-bred genre called the western, he doesn’t stray too far from the Rosetta Stone primer, straight-talking and straight-shooting his way through an engrossing, giddy, and bloody revenge tale from the Spaghetti West that doesn’t entirely reinvent the wagon wheel.
In this R-rated revisionist Wagner-tinged western, former slave Django (Foxx) comes 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). While it sags in the middle like a brokeback horse, the film proves to be neither his most brilliant nor his most pedestrian work. Rather, filled with some indelible aesthetics (blood and cotton), pitch-perfect performances (DiCaprio, prepare to be nominated), and quotable lines, the memorable language of Django Unchained stays with filmgoers long after they’ve driven away into the sunset. Bottom line: A fistful of hollas.
Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe
Despite being bleaker than Bleak House, this movingly soul-stirring film adaptation of a musical adaptation of a book adaptation of Les Miserables is truly master of the movie house. From the opening salvo, all involved dream a dream of greatness, which is vaulted air. It could’ve gone the way of wrong note stage to screen adaptations Rent and Nine, overly produced Hollywood pomp that wrung nearly all of the heart out of their amazing respective songbooks. Instead, sung in-the-moment — not lip-synched — and framed in beguilingly intimate close-ups, Les Miserables proves to be a deeply emotional journey for the audience. Tear-swept filmgoing at its most heartfelt, the musical easily ranks with Singin’ in the Rain, Cabaret, and Chicago as a genre high-note even if it’s less toe-tapping and more gut-wrenching.
In this PG-13-rated 19th-century France-set musical, ex-prisoner Jean Valjean (Jackman) seeks redemption with a ruthless policeman (Crowe) on his trail. Here, Claude-Michel Schonberg and Alain Boublil’s long running Broadway musical take on Victor Hugo’s classic novel gets expertly served by some ace casting. Hugh Jackman ably carries most of the film’s emotional heft, trading in washboard abs and Adamantium claws for a paunch, crow’s feet, and touches of gray. Even with minimal screen time, Anne Hathaway’s powerful Oscar-worthy performance resonates in every single tick of the long 158-minute running time. Even in the overcast cinematography, everybody else shines but its director Tom Hooper, coming so soon on the tail of his triumphant history lesson The King’s Speech, who brilliantly exposes the soaring human spirit like a raw nerve. Bottom line: Sings for its super.
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 like 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.
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. In this PG-13-rated crime, a former military policeman (Cruise) with a knack for seeking out justice investigates a trained military sniper’s urban killing spree. 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, which truly jacks into a funny, exciting, and occasionally bone-crunching detective tale even if its star doesn’t meet the height requirements of persnickety audiences. Bottom Line: Far and away, a solid thriller.
Silver Linings Playbook
Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence
Boasting more of a gold, platinum, or diamond as opposed to a Silver lining, David O. Russell’s latest crowd pleaser presents an oft-kilter Playbook that Hollywood should take a page from more often. In this R-rated dramedy, institutionalized Pat Solatano (Cooper) tries getting back on his feet after losing his house, job, and wife, but finds things getting really complicated when he meets a mysterious girl (Lawrence). It convincingly deals with mental illness … yet filmgoers laugh. It focuses on characters with degenerative behavior … yet filmgoers root for them. It turns gut-punching reality bites into feel good vibes … yet filmgoers buy it completely. With a never-better cast, screenwriter/director Russell lines cinemas with a enriching tale that teaches audiences that, just because we’re all a little crazy, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t throw out Hemingway and hope for a happy ending once in a while. Bottom line: Shines bright like a diamond.
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. In this R-rated Knocked Up spin-off, a couple (Rudd, Mann) deals with a credit crunch, two precocious kids (Maude and Iris Apatow), and the inevitability of passing their prime. Truthfully, it’s not that the movie is unfunny. In fact, there are many laugh-out-loud moments imbedded among the tired one-to-grow-on life lessons. It’s just that Apatow’s other projects held higher stakes than this whiny ode to the Big Four Oh. Oh, the subject of aging is certainly worth pondering, but This — 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. Bottom Line: This is average.