Film Listings and Reviews

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Film listings are edited by Cheryl Eddy. Reviewers are Kimberly Chun, Dennis Harvey, Lynn Rapoport, and Sara Maria Vizcarrondo. For rep house showtimes, see Rep Clock. Due to the Christmas holiday, theater information was incomplete at presstime.

OPENING

My Worst Nightmare First seen locally in the San Francisco Film Society's 2012 "French Cinema Now" series, My Worst Nightmare follows icy art curator Agathe (Isabelle Huppert) as her airless, tightly-controlled world begins to crumble — thanks in no small part to an exuberantly uncouth, down-on-his-luck Belgian contractor named Patrick (Benoît Poelvoorde). (His obnoxious, freewheeling presence in Agathe's precision-mapped orbit gives rise to the film's title.) Director and co-writer Anne Fontaine (2009's Coco Before Chanel) injects plenty of offbeat, occasionally raunchy humor into what could've been a predictable personal-liberation tale — the sight of classy dame Huppert driving through a bikini car wash, for instance. (1:43) Smith Rafael. (Eddy)

Not Fade Away How to explain why the Beatles have been tossed so many cinematic bon mots and not the Stones? The group's relatively short lifespan — and even the tragic, unexpectedly dramatic passing of John Lennon — seem to have all played into the band's nostalgia-marinated legend, while the Stones' profitable tour rotation and shocking physical resilience have lessened their romantic charge. So it reads as a counterintuitive, and a bit random, that Sopranos creator David Chase would open his first feature film with a black and white re-creation of the Mick Jagger and Keith Richards meet-up, before switching to the '60s coming-of-age of New Jersey teen geek Douglas (John Magaro), trapped in an oppressively whiny nuclear family headed up by his Pep Boy grouch of a dad (James Gandolfini) — at least until rock 'n' roll saves his soul and he starts beating the skins. Graduating to better-than-average singer after his band's frontman Eugene (Boardwalk Empire's Jack Huston) inhales a joint, Douglas not only finds his voice, but also wins over dream girl Grace (Bella Heathcote). Sure, Not Fade Away is about sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll — and much attention is dutifully squandered on basement shows, band practice, and politics, and posturing with wacky new haircuts and funny cigarettes, thanks to Chase's own background in garage bands and executive producer, music supervisor, and true believer Steve Van Zandt's considerable passion. Yet despite the amount screen time devoted to rock's rites, those familiar gestures never rise above the clichéd, and Not Fade Away only finds its authentic emotional footing when Gandolfini's imposing yet trapped patriarch and the rest of Douglas's beaten-down yet still kicking family enters the picture — they're the force that refuses to fade away, even after they disappear in the rear view. (1:52) (Chun)

Promised Land Gus Van Sant's fracking fable — co-written by stars Matt Damon and John Krasinski, from a story by Dave Eggers — offers a didactic lesson in environmental politics, capped off by the earth-shattering revelation that billion-dollar corporations are sleazy and evil. You don't say! Formulated like a Capra movie, Promised Land follows company man Steve Butler (Matt Damon) as he and sales partner Sue (Frances McDormand) travel to a small Pennsylvania town to convince its (they hope) gullible residents to allow drilling on their land. But things don't go as smoothly as hoped, when the pair faces opposition from a science teacher with a brainiac past (Hal Holbrook), and an irritatingly upbeat green activist (Krasinski) breezes into town to further monkey-wrench their scheme. That Damon is such a likeable actor actually works against him here; his character arc from soulless salesman to emotional-creature-with-a-conscience couldn't be more predictable or obvious. McDormand's wonderfully biting supporting performance is the best (and only) reason to see this ponderous, faux-folksy tale, which targets an audience that likely already shares its point of view. (1:46) (Eddy)

We Are Legion: The Story of the Hacktivists Documentary about the radical online community known as Anonymous — famed for their activist attacks on big business, corrupt governments, criminals, and other deserving targets. (1:33) Roxie.

ONGOING

Anna Karenina Joe Wright broke out of British TV with the 9,000th filmed Pride and Prejudice (2005), unnecessary but quite good. Too bad it immediately went to his head. His increasing showiness as director enlivened the silly teenage-superspy avenger fantasy Hanna (2011), but it started to get in the way of Atonement (2007), a fine book didn't need camera gymnastics to make a great movie. Now it's completely sunk a certified literary masterpiece still waiting for a worthy film adaptation. Keira Knightley plays the titular 19th century St. Petersburg aristocrat whose staid, happy-enough existence as a doting mother and dutiful wife (to deglammed Jude Law's honorable but neglectful Karenin) is upended when she enters a mutually passionate affair with dashing military officer Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson, miscast). Scandal and tragedy ensue. There's nothing wrong with the screenplay, by Tom Stoppard no less. What's wrong is Wright's bright idea of staging the whole shebang as if it were indeed staged — a theatrical production in which nearly everything (even a crucial horse race) takes place on a proscenium stage, in the auditorium, or "backstage" among riggings. Whenever we move into a "real" location, the director makes sure that transition draws attention to its own cleverness as possible. What, you might ask, is the point? That the public social mores and society Anna lives in are a sort of "acting"? Like wow. Add to that another brittle, mannered performance by Wright's muse Knightley, and there's no hope of involvement here, let alone empathy — in love with its empty (but very prettily designed) layers of artifice, this movie ends up suffocating all emotion in gilded horseshit. The reversed-fortune romance between Levin (Domhall Gleeson) and Kitty (Alicia Vikander) does work quite well — though since Tolstoy called his novel Anna Karenina, it's a pretty bad sign when the subsidiary storyline ends up vastly more engaging than hers. (2:10) (Harvey)

Any Day Now In 1970s West Hollywood, flamboyant drag queen Rudy (Alan Cumming) and closeted, newly divorced lawyer Paul (Garret Dillahunt) meet and become an unlikely but loving couple. Their opposites-attract bond strengthens when they become de facto parents to Marco (Isaac Leyva), a teen with Down syndrome left adrift when his party-girl mother (Jamie Anne Allman) is arrested. Domestic bliss — school for Marco with a caring special-education teacher (Kelli Williams); a fledgling singing career for Rudy (so: lots of crooning, for Cumming superfans) — is threatened by rampant homophobia, so Rudy and Paul must conceal their true relationship from Paul's overbearing boss and the other parents at Marco's school. When the secret gets out, the fact that Marco is being well cared-for matters not to the law; he's immediately shunted into a foster home while Paul and Rudy battle the court for custody. Actor-turned-director and co-writer Travis Fine (2010's The Space Between) guides a veteran cast through this based-on-true-events tale, with sensitive performances and realistic characterizations balancing out the story's broader strokes. (1:43) Smith Rafael. (Eddy)

Argo If you didn't know the particulars of the 1979 Iranian Revolution, you won't be an expert after Argo, but the film does a good job of capturing America's fearful reaction to the events that followed it — particularly the hostage crisis at the US embassy in Tehran. Argo zeroes in on the fate of six embassy staffers who managed to escape the building and flee to the home of the sympathetic Canadian ambassador (Victor Garber). Back in Washington, short-tempered CIA agents (including a top-notch Bryan Cranston) cast about for ways to rescue them. Enter Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck, who also directs), exfil specialist and father to a youngster wrapped up in the era's sci-fi craze. While watching 1973's Battle for the Planet of the Apes, Tony comes up with what Cranston's character calls "the best bad idea we have:" the CIA will fund a phony Canadian movie production (corny, intergalactic, and titled Argo) and pretend the six are part of the crew, visiting Iran for a few days on a location shoot. Tony will sneak in, deliver the necessary fake-ID documents, and escort them out. Neither his superiors, nor the six in hiding, have much faith in the idea. ("Is this the part where we say, 'It's so crazy it just might work?'" someone asks, beating the cliché to the punch.) Argo never lets you forget that lives are at stake; every painstakingly forged form, every bluff past a checkpoint official increases the anxiety (to the point of being laid on a bit thick by the end). But though Affleck builds the needed suspense with gusto, Argo comes alive in its Hollywood scenes. As the show-biz veterans who mull over Tony's plan with a mix of Tinseltown cynicism and patiotic duty, John Goodman and Alan Arkin practically burst with in-joke brio. I could have watched an entire movie just about those two. (2:00) (Eddy)

The Central Park Five Acclaimed documentarian Ken Burns takes on the 1989 rape case that shocked and divided a New York City already overwhelmed by racially-charged violence. The initial crime was horrible enough — a female jogger was brutally assaulted in Central Park — but what happened after was also awful: cops and prosecutors, none of whom agreed to appear in the film, swooped in on a group of African American and Latino teenagers who had been making mischief in the vicinity (NYC's hysterical media dubbed the acts "wilding," a term that became forever associated with the event). Just 14 to 16 years old, the boys were questioned for hours and intimidated into giving false, damning confessions. Already guilty in the court of public opinion, the accused were convicted in trials — only to see their convictions vacated years after they'd served their time, when the real assailant was finally identified. Using archival news footage (in one clip, Gov. Mario Cuomo calls the crime "the ultimate shriek of alarm that says none of us are safe") and contemporary, emotional interviews with the Five, Burns crafts a fascinating study of a crime that ran away with itself, in an environment that encouraged it, leaving lives beyond just the jogger's devastated in the process. (1:59) Roxie. (Eddy)

Chasing Ice Even wild-eyed neocons might reconsider their declarations that global warming is a hoax after seeing the work of photographer James Balog, whose images of shrinking glaciers offer startling proof that our planet is indeed being ravaged by climate change (and it's getting exponentially worse). Jeff Orlowski's doc follows Balog and his Extreme Ice Survey team as they brave cruel elements in Iceland, Greenland, and Alaska, using time-lapse cameras to record glacier activity, some of it quite dramatic, over months and years. Balog is an affable subject, doggedly pursuing his work even after multiple knee surgeries make him a less-than-agile hiker, but it's the photographs — as hauntingly beautiful as they are alarming — that make Chasing Ice so powerful. Could've done without Scarlett Johansson crooning over the end credits, though. (1:15) (Eddy)

Cirque du Soleil: Worlds Away (1:31)

Citadel Irish import Citadel begins with terror: a young pregnant woman, on the verge of moving out of her soon-to-be-condemned high-rise, is attacked — while her husband, Tommy (Aneurin Barnard), looks on helplessly — by a pack of hoodie-wearing youths who inject her with a mysterious substance. Though the baby lives, the woman dies, and Tommy becomes a haunted, paranoid husk of a man. Not that you can really blame him; the housing project he lives in is nearly deserted, and those hoodie-wearing gangs seem to be increasing (and are increasingly interested in his infant daughter). After an ominous build-up, the darkly disturbing Citadel can't quite keep the momentum going, though James Cosmo (Game of Thrones fans will recognize him even out of his Night's Watch blacks) offers an amusingly over-the-top performance as a foul-mouthed priest. (1:24) Roxie. (Eddy)

Cloud Atlas Cramming the six busy storylines of David Mitchell's wildly ambitious novel into just three hours — the average reader might have thought at least 12 would be required — this impressive adaptation directed (in separate parts) by Tom Twyker (1998's Run Lola Run) and Matrix siblings Lana and Andy Wachowski has a whole lot of narrative to get through, stretching around the globe and over centuries. In the mid 19th century, Jim Sturgess' sickly American notory endures a long sea voyage as reluctant protector of a runaway-slave stowaway from the Chatham Islands (David Gyasi). In 1931 Belgium, a talented but criminally minded British musician (Ben Whishaw) wheedles his way into the household of a famous but long-inactive composer (Jim Broadbent). A chance encounter sets 1970s San Francisco journalist Luisa (Halle Berry) on the path of a massive cover-up conspiracy, swiftly putting her life in danger. Circa now, a reprobate London publisher's (Broadbent) huge windfall turns into bad luck that gets even worse when he seeks help from his brother (Hugh Grant). In the not-so-distant future, a disposable "fabricant" server to the "consumer" classes (Doona Bae) finds herself plucked from her cog-like life for a rebellious higher purpose. Finally, in an indeterminately distant future after "the Fall," an island tribesman (Tom Hanks) forms a highly ambivalent relationship toward a visitor (Berry) from a more advanced but dying civilization. Mitchell's book was divided into huge novella-sized blocks, with each thread split in two; the film wastes very little time establishing its individual stories before beginning to rapidly intercut between them. That may result in a sense of information (and eventually action) overload, particularly for non-readers, even as it clarifies the connective tissues running throughout. Compression robs some episodes of the cumulative impact they had on the page; the starry multicasting (which in addition to the above mentioned finds many uses for Hugo Weaving, Keith David, James D'Arcy, and Susan Sarandon) can be a distraction; and there's too much uplift forced on the six tales' summation. Simply put, not everything here works; like the very different Watchmen, this is a rather brilliant "impossible adaptation" screenplay (by the directors) than nonetheless can't help but be a bit too much. But so much does work — in alternating currents of satire, melodrama, pulp thriller, dystopian sci-fi, adventure, and so on — that Cloud Atlas must be forgiven for being imperfect. If it were perfect, it couldn't possibly sprawl as imaginatively and challengingly as it does, and as mainstream movies very seldom do. (2:52) (Harvey)

The Collection As soon as you behold the neon sign "Hotel Argento" shining over the grim warehouse-cum-evil dead trap, you know exactly what you're in for — a wink, and even a little bit of a horror superfan's giggle. In other words, to tweak that killer Roach Motel tagline: kids check in, but they don't check out. No need to see 2009's The Collector — the previous movie by director-cowriter Marcus Dunstan and writer Patrick Melton (winners of the third season of Project Greenlight, now with the screenplays for multiple Saw films beneath their collective belt) — the giallo fanboy and gorehound hallmarks are there for all to enjoy: tarantulas (straight from 1981's The Beyond), a factory kitted out as an elaborate murder machine, and end credits that capture characters' last moments. Plus, plenty of fast-paced shocks and seemingly endless splatter, with a heavy sprinkle of wince-inducing compound fractures. The Collection ups the first film's ante, as gamine Elena (Emma Fitzpatrick) is lured to go dancing with her pals. Their underground party turns out to be way beyond the fringe, as the killer mows down the dance floor, literally, and gives the phrase "teen crush" a bloody new spin. Stumbling on The Collector's antihero thief Arkin (Josh Stewart) locked in a box, Elena releases him but can't prevent her own capture, so killer-bodyguard Lucello (Oz's Lee Tergesen) snatches Arkin from the hospital and forces him to lead his team of toughs through a not-so-funhouse teeming with booby traps as well as victims-turned-insidious-weapons. All of which almost convinces you of nutty-nutball genius of the masked, dilated-pupiled Collector (here stuntman Randall Archer), who takes trendy taxidermy to icky extremes — even when his mechanism is threatened by a way smart last girl and a lock picker who's adept at cracking building codes. Despite Dunstan's obvious devotion to horror-movie landmarks, The Collection doesn't turn out to be particularly original: rather, it attempts to stand on the shoulders — and arms and dismembered body parts — of others, in hopes of finding its place on a nonexistent drive-in bill. (1:23) (Chun)

Deadfall Thriller Deadfall, set amid a howling blizzard, has an all-star cast: Eric Bana and Olivia Wilde play a creepy-close brother-sister team who crash their getaway car after a successful casino heist; Sons of Anarchy's Charlie Hunnam plays a vengeful boxer just out of the slammer (with nervous parents played by Kris Kristofferson and Sissy Spacek); and Treat Williams and Kate Mara are an antagonistic father-daughter team of cops chasing after most of the above. Bana's glowering performance is the high point of this noir-Western, though if the snowy landscape were a character, it'd be the most important part of the ensemble. (1:35) (Eddy)

Django Unchained Quentin Tarantino's spaghetti western homage features a cameo by the original Django (Franco Nero, star of the 1966 film), and solid performances by a meticulously assembled cast, including Jamie Foxx as the titular former slave who becomes a badass bounty hunter under the tutelage of Dr. Schultz (Christoph Waltz). Waltz, who won an Oscar for playing the evil yet befuddlingly delightful Nazi Hans Landa in Tarantino's 2009 Inglourious Basterds, is just as memorable (and here, you can feel good about liking him) as a quick-witted, quick-drawing wayward German dentist. There are no Nazis in Django, of course, but Tarantino's taboo du jour (slavery) more than supplies motivation for the filmmaker's favorite theme (revenge). Once Django joins forces with Schultz, the natural-born partners hatch a scheme to rescue Django's still-enslaved wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), whose German-language skills are as unlikely as they are convenient. Along the way (and it's a long way; the movie runs 165 minutes), they encounter a cruel plantation owner (Leonardo DiCaprio), whose main passion is the offensive, shocking "sport" of "Mandingo fighting," and his right-hand man, played by Tarantino muse Samuel L. Jackson in a transcendently scandalous performance. And amid all the violence and racist language and Foxx vengeance-making, there are many moments of screaming hilarity, as when a character with the Old South 101 name of Big Daddy (Don Johnson) argues with the posse he's rounded up over the proper construction of vigilante hoods. It's a classic Tarantino moment: pausing the action so characters can blather on about something trivial before an epic scene of violence. Mr. Pink would approve. (2:45) (Eddy)

Flight To twist the words of one troubled balladeer, he believes he can fly, he believes he can touch the sky. Unfortunately for Denzel Washington's Whip Whitaker, another less savory connotation applies: his semi-sketchy airline captain is sailing on the overconfidence that comes with billowing clouds of blow. Beware the quickie TV spot — and Washington's heroic stance in the poster — that plays this as a quasi-action flick: Flight is really about a man's efforts to escape responsibility and his flight from facing his own addiction. It also sees Washington once again doing what he does so well: wrestling with the demons of a charismatic yet deeply flawed protagonist. We come upon Whip as he's rousing himself from yet another bender, balancing himself out with a couple lines with a gorgeous, enabling flight attendant by his side. It's a checks-and-balances routine we're led to believe is business as usual, as he slides confidently into the cockpit, gives the passengers a good scare by charging through turbulence, and proceeds to doze off. The plane, however, goes into fail mode and forces the pilot to improvise brilliantly and kick into hero mode, though he can't fly from his cover, which is slowly blown despite the ministrations of kindred addict Nicole (Kelly Reilly) and dealer Harling (John Goodman at his most ebullient) and the defensive moves of his pilots union cohort (Bruce Greenwood) and the airline's lawyer (Don Cheadle). How can Whip fly out of the particular jam called his life? Working with what he's given, Washington summons reserves of humanity, though he's ultimately failed by John Gatins' sanctimonious, recovery-by-the-numbers script and the tendency of seasoned director Robert Zemeckis to blithely skip over the personal history and background details that would have more completely filled out our picture of Whip. We're left grasping for the highs, waiting for the instances that Harling sails into view and Whip tumbles off the wagon. (2:18) (Chun)

The Guilt Trip (1:35)

Hitchcock On the heels of last year's My Week With Marilyn comes another biopic about an instantly recognizable celebrity viewed through the lens of a specific film shoot. Here, we have Anthony Hopkins (padded and prosthetic'd) playing the Master of Suspense, mulling over which project to pursue after the success of 1959's North by Northwest. Even if you're not a Hitch buff, it's clear from the first scene that Psycho, based on Robert Bloch's true crime-inspired pulpy thriller, is looming. We open on "Ed Gein's Farmhouse, 1944;" Gein (Michael Wincott) is seen in his yard, his various heinous crimes — murder, grave-robbing, body-part hoarding, human-skin-mask crafting, etc. — as yet undiscovered. Hitchcock, portrayed by the guy who also played the Gein-inspired Hannibal Lecter, steps into the frame with that familiar droll greeting: "Guhhd eevvveeeening." And we're off, following the veteran director as he muses "What if somebody really good made a horror picture?" Though his wife and collaborator, Alma (Helen Mirren), cautions him against doing something simply because everyone tells him not to, he plows ahead; the filmmaking scenes are peppered with behind-the-scenes moments detailed in Stephen Rebello's Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho, the source material for John J. McLaughlin's script. But as the film's tagline — "Behind every Psycho is a great woman" — suggests, the relationship between Alma and Hitch is, stubbornly, Hitchcock's main focus. While Mirren is effective (and I'm all for seeing a lady who works hard behind the scenes get recognition), the Hitch-at-home subplot exists only to shoehorn more conflict into a tale that's got plenty already. Elsewhere, however, Hitchcock director Sacha Gervasi — making his narrative debut after hit 2008 doc Anvil: The Story of Anvil — shows stylistic flair, working Hitchcock references into the mise-en-scène. (1:32) (Eddy)

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey Make no mistake: the Lord of the Rings trilogy represented an incredible filmmaking achievement, with well-deserved Oscars handed down after the third installment in 2003. If director Peter Jackson wanted to go one more round with J.R.R. Tolkien's beloved characters for a Hobbit movie, who was gonna stop him? Not so fast. This return to Middle-earth (in 3D this time) represents not one but three films — which would be self-indulgent enough even if part one didn't unspool at just under three hours, and even if Jackson hadn't decided to shoot at 48 frames per second. (I can't even begin to explain what that means from a technical standpoint, but suffice to say there's a certain amount of cinematic lushness lost when everything is rendered in insanely crystal-clear hi-def.) Journey begins as Bilbo Baggins (a game, funny Martin Freeman) reluctantly joins Gandalf (a weary-seeming Ian McKellan) and a gang of dwarves on their quest to reclaim their stolen homeland and treasure, batting Orcs, goblins, Gollum (Andy Serkis), and other beasties along the way. Fan-pandering happens (with characters like Cate Blanchett's icy Galadriel popping in to remind you how much you loved LOTR), and the story moves at a brisk enough pace, but Journey never transcends what came before — or in the chronology of the story, what comes after. I'm not quite ready to declare this Jackson's Phantom Menace (1999), but it's not an unfair comparison to make, either. (2:50) (Eddy)

Hyde Park on Hudson Weeks after the release of Lincoln, Hyde Park on Hudson arrives with a lighthearted (-ish) take on Franklin D. Roosevelt's 1939 meeting with King George VI (of stuttering fame) and Queen Elizabeth at FDR's rural New York estate. Casting Bill Murray as FDR is Hyde Park's main attraction, though Olivia Williams makes for a surprisingly effective Eleanor. But the thrust of the film concerns FDR's relationship with his cousin, Daisy — played by Laura Linney, who's relegated to a series of dowdy outfits, pouting reaction shots, and far too many voice-overs. The affair has zero heat, and the film is disappointingly shallow — how many times can one be urged to giggle at someone saying "Hot dogs!" in an English accent? — not to mention a waste of a perfectly fine Bill Murray performance. As that sideburned Democrat bellows in Lincoln, "Howwww dare you!" (1:35) (Eddy)

The Impossible Spanish director Juan Antonio Bayona (2007's The Orphanage) directs The Impossible, a relatively modestly-budgeted take on the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, based on the real story of a Spanish family who experienced the disaster. Here, the family (Naomi Watts, Ewan McGregor, three young sons) is British, on a Christmas vacation from dad's high-stress job in Japan. Beachy bliss is soon ruined by that terrible series of waves; they hit early in the film, and Bayona offers a devastatingly realistic depiction of what being caught in a tsunami must feel like: roaring, debris-filled water threatening death by drowning, impalement, or skull-crushing. And then, the anguish of surfacing, alive but injured, stranded, and miles from the nearest doctor, not knowing if your family members have perished. Without giving anything away (no more than the film's suggestive title, anyway), once the survivors are established (and the film's strongest performer, Watts, is relegated to hospital-bed scenes) The Impossible finds its way inevitably to melodrama, and triumph-of-the-human-spirit theatrics. As the family's oldest son, 16-year-old Tom Holland is effective as a kid who reacts exactly right to crisis, morphing from sulky teen to thoughtful hero — but the film is too narrowly focused on its tourist characters, with native Thais mostly relegated to background action. It's a disconnect that's not quite offensive, but is still off-putting. (1:54) (Eddy)

Jack Reacher (2:10)

Killing Them Softly Lowest-level criminal fuckwits Frankie (Scoot McNairy) and Russell (Ben Mendelsohn) are hired to rob a mob gambling den, a task which miraculously they fail to blow. Nevertheless, the repercussions are swift and harsh, as a middleman suit (Richard Jenkins) to the unseen bosses brings in one hitman (Brad Pitt), who brings in another (James Gandolfini) to figure out who the thieves are and administer extreme justice. Based on a 1970s novel by George V. Higgins, this latest collaboration by Pitt and director-scenarist Andrew Dominik would appear superficially to be a surer commercial bet after the box-office failure of their last, 2007's The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford — one of the great films of the last decade. But if you're looking for action thrills or even Guy Ritchie-style swaggering mantalk (though there is some of that), you'll be disappointed to find Killing more in the abstracted crime drama arena of Drive (2011) or The American (2010), landing somewhere between the riveting former and the arid latter. This meticulously crafted tale is never less than compelling in imaginative direction and expert performance, but it still carries a certain unshakable air of so-what. Some may be turned off by just how vividly unpleasant Mendelsohn's junkie and Gandolfini's alchie are. Others will shrug at the wisdom of re-setting this story in the fall of 2008, with financial-infrastructure collapse and the hollow promise of President-elect Obama's "Change" providing ironical background noise. It's all a little too little, too soon. (1:37) (Harvey)

A Late Quartet Philip Seymour Hoffman is fed up playing second fiddle — literally. He stars in this grown-up soap opera about the internal dramas of a world-class string quartet. While the group is preparing for its 25th season, the eldest member (Christopher Walken) is diagnosed with early stage Parkinson's. As he's the base note in the quartet, his retirement challenges the group's future, not just his own. Hoffman's second violinist sees the transition as an opportunity to challenge the first violin (Mark Ivanir) for an occasional Alpha role. When his wife, the quartet's viola player (Catherine Keener), disagrees, it's a slight ("You think I'm not good enough?") and a betrayal because prior to their marriage, viola and first violin would "duet" if you get my meaning. This becomes a grody aside when Hoffman and Keener's violin prodigy daughter (Imogen Poots) falls for her mother's old beau and Hoffman challenges their marriage with a flamenco dancer. These quiet people finds ways to use some loud instruments (a flamenco dancer, really?) and the music as well as the views of Manhattan create a deeply settled feeling of comfort in the cold —insulation can be a dangerous thing. When we see (real world) cellist Nina Lee play, and her full body interacts with a drama as big as vaudeville, we see what tension was left out of the playing and forced into the incestuous "family" conflicts. In A Late Quartet, pleasures are great and atmosphere, heavy. You couldn't find a better advertisement for this symphonic season; I wanted to buy tickets immediately. And also vowed to stay away from musicians. (1:45) Smith Rafael. (Vizcarrondo)

Life of Pi Several filmmakers including Alfonso Cuarón, Jean-Pierre Jeunet, and M. Night Shyamalan had a crack at Yann Martel's "unfilmable" novel over the last decade, without success. That turns out to have been a very good thing, since Ang Lee and scenarist David Magee have made probably the best movie possible from the material — arguably even an improvement on it. Framed as the adult protagonist's (Irrfan Khan) lengthy reminiscence to an interested writer (Rafe Spall) it chronicles his youthful experience accompanying his family and animals from their just shuttered zoo on a cargo ship voyage from India to Canada. But a storm capsizes the vessel, stranding teenaged Pi (Suraj Sharma) on a lifeboat with a mini menagerie — albeit one swiftly reduced by the food chain in action to one Richard Parker, a whimsically named Bengal tiger. This uneasy forced cohabitation between Hindu vegetarian and instinctual carnivore is an object lesson in survival as well as a fable about the existence of God, among other things. Shot in 3D, the movie has plenty of enchanted, original imagery, though its outstanding technical accomplishment may lie more in the application of CGI (rather than stereoscopic photography) to something reasonably intelligent for a change. First-time actor Sharma is a natural, while his costar gives the most remarkable performance by a wild animal this side of Joaquin Phoenix in The Master. It's not a perfect film, but it's a charmed, lovely experience. (2:00) (Harvey)

Lincoln Distinguished subject matter and an A+ production team (Steven Spielberg directing, Daniel Day-Lewis starring, Tony Kushner adapting Doris Kearns Goodwin, John Williams scoring every emotion juuust so) mean Lincoln delivers about what you'd expect: a compelling (if verbose), emotionally resonant (and somehow suspenseful) dramatization of President Lincoln's push to get the 13th amendment passed before the start of his second term. America's neck-deep in the Civil War, and Congress, though now without Southern representation, is profoundly divided on the issue of abolition. Spielberg recreates 1865 Washington as a vibrant, exciting place, albeit one filled with so many recognizable stars it's almost distracting wondering who'll pop up in the next scene: Jared Harris as Ulysses S. Grant! Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Robert Lincoln! Lena Dunham's shirtless boyfriend on Girls (Adam Driver) as a soldier! Most notable among the huge cast are John Hawkes, Tim Blake Nelson, and a daffy James Spader as a trio of lobbyists; Sally Field as the troubled First Lady; and likely Oscar contenders Tommy Lee Jones (as winningly cranky Rep. Thaddeus Stevens) and Day-Lewis, who does a reliably great job of disappearing into his iconic role. (2:30) (Eddy)

The Master Paul Thomas Anderson's much-hyped likely Best Picture contender lives up: it's easily the best film of 2012 so far. Philip Seymour Hoffman stars as Lancaster Dodd, the L. Ron Hubbard-ish head of a Scientology-esque movement. "The Cause" attracts Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix, in a welcome return from the faux-deep end), less for its pseudo-religious psychobabble and bizarre personal-growth exercises, and more because it supplies the aimless, alcoholic veteran — a drifter in every sense of the word — with a sense of community he yearns for, yet resists submitting to. As with There Will Be Blood (2007), Anderson focuses on the tension between the two main characters: an older, established figure and his upstart challenger. But there's less cut-and-dried antagonism here; while their relationship is complex, and it does lead to dark, troubled places, there are also moments of levity and weird hilarity — which might have something to do with Freddie's paint-thinner moonshine. (2:17) (Eddy)

The Matchmaker In 2006, amid ongoing conflict with Lebanon, an Israeli novelist learns he's received an unexpected inheritance from a man he knew in 1968, the summer before he turned 16. Most of Avi Nesher's The Matchmaker takes place during those golden months in Haifa, when young Arik (Tuval Shafir) — lover of Dashiell Hammett, son of Holocaust survivors — takes a job working for a charismatic but vaguely shady matchmaker (comedian Adir Miller, who won the Israeli equivalent of a Best Actor Oscar), following potential clients to assure their quest for love is on the level. His exciting new gig whisks the budding writer out of middle-class monotony and introduces him to a wealth of colorful "Low Rent district" types; he also nurses a raging crush on his best friend's free-spirited American cousin. Mostly a gently nostalgic tale, The Matchmaker also offers an unusual take on the Holocaust, viewing it from two decades later and using its looming memory to shape the characters who experienced it firsthand — as well as members of the younger generation, like Arik, who pages through The House of Dolls to learn more, even as he refers to the concentration camp where his father was held as simply "there." (1:52) (Eddy)

Les Misérables There is a not-insignificant portion of the population who already knows all the words to all the songs of this musical-theater warhorse, around since the 1980s and honored here with a lavish production by Tom Hooper (2010's The King's Speech). As other reviews have pointed out, this version only tangentially concerns Victor Hugo's French Revolution tale; its true raison d'être is swooning over the sight of its big-name cast crooning those famous tunes. Vocals were recorded live on-set, with microphones digitally removed in post-production — but despite this technical achievement, there's a certain inorganic quality to the proceedings. Like The King's Speech, the whole affair feels spliced together in the Oscar-creation lab. The hardworking Hugh Jackman deserves the nomination he'll inevitably get; jury's still out on Anne Hathaway's blubbery, "I cut my hair for real, I am so brave!" performance. (2:37) (Eddy)

Monsters, Inc. 3D (1:35)

The New Jerusalem (1:34) Roxie.

Parental Guidance (1:36)

The Perks of Being a Wallflower Move over, Diary of a Wimpy Kid series — there's a new shrinking-violet social outcast in town. These days, life might not suck quite so hard for 90-pound weaklings in every age category, what with so many films and TV shows exposing, and sometimes even celebrating, the many miseries of childhood and adolescence for all to see. In this case, Perks author Stephen Chbosky takes on the directorial duties — both a good and bad thing, much like the teen years. Smart, shy Charlie is starting high school with a host of issues: he's painfully awkward and very alone in the brutal throng, his only friend just committed suicide, and his only simpatico family member was killed in a car accident. Charlie's English teacher Mr. Andersen (Paul Rudd) appears to be his only connection, until the freshman strikes up a conversation with feline, charismatic, shop-class jester Patrick (Ezra Miller) and his magnetic, music- and fun-loving stepsister Sam (Emma Watson). Who needs the popular kids? The witty duo head up their gang of coolly uncool outcasts their own, the Wallflowers (not to be confused with the deeply uncool Jakob Dylan combo), and with them, Charlie appears to have found his tribe. Only a few small secrets put a damper on matters: Patrick happens to be gay and involved with football player Brad (Johnny Simmons), who's saddled with a violently conservative father, and Charlie is in love with the already-hooked-up Sam and is frightened that his fragile equilibrium will be destroyed when his new besties graduate and slip out of his life. Displaying empathy and a devotion to emotional truth, Chbosky takes good care of his characters, preserving the complexity and ungainly quirks of their not-so-cartoonish suburbia, though his limitations as a director come to the fore in the murkiness and choppily handled climax that reveals how damaged Charlie truly is. (1:43) (Chun)

Playing For Keeps Not a keeper: the marketing imagery that makes Gerard Butler look like an insufferable creep with bad hair. Dennis Quaid, seen in a small pic toward the base of the Playing For Keeps poster, gets that thankless role instead in this family-oriented rom-com, which is better than some while still being capable of eliciting very audible yawns from an audience supposedly primed for cutesy hijinks. Butler is George Dryer, a onetime pro soccer star now on the decline yet desperately seeking his next opening — a career as a sportscaster. To get there he has to run a networking gauntlet called coaching children's soccer, which he gets roped into by ex Stacie (Jessica Biel) and spawn Lewis (Noah Lomax). The ankle biters are the least of his problems: more challenging are hot 'n' horny soccer moms like TV sports vet Denise (Catherine Zeta-Jones), cry-face Barn (Judy Greer), and desperate trophy housewife Patti (Uma Thurman), who's saddled with all-American a-hole Carl (Dennis Quaid). The charisma-oozing George has to practically fight them off, while somehow shooting for that family-first goal. With its sex farce tendencies, rom-com DNA, and vaguely sour attitude toward hard-up moms, hot or not, I'm not sure who Playing For Keeps is really making a play for — perhaps married ladies looking for date-night possibilities and some shirtless Butler action? Projecting believability even under the most plausibility-taxing circumstances, Butler manages, as always, to be the best thing in the movie, though it seems like less of an achievement when his projects tend toward mediocrity. (1:46) (Chun)

Rise of the Guardians There's nothing so camp as "Heat Miser" from The Year Without a Santa Claus (1974) in Rise of the Guardians,, but there's plenty here to charm all ages. The mystery at its center: we open on Jack Frost (voiced by Chris Pine) being born, pulled from the depths of a frozen pond by the Man on the Moon and destined to spread ice and cold everywhere he goes, invisible to all living creatures. It's an individualistic yet lonely lot for Jack, who's styled as an impish snowboarder in a hoodie and armed with an icy scepter, until the Guardians — spirits like North/Santa Claus (Alec Baldwin), the Tooth Fairy (Isla Fisher), and the Easter Bunny (Hugh Jackman) — call on him to join them. Pitch the Boogeyman (Jude Law) is threatening to snuff out all children's hopes and dreams with fears and nightmares, and it's up to the Guardians must keep belief in magic alive. But what's in it for Jack, except the most important thing: namely who is he and what is his origin story? Director Peter Ramsey keeps those fragile dreams aloft with scenes awash with motion and animation that evokes the chubby figures and cozy warm tones of '70s European storybooks. And though Pine verges on blandness with his vocal performance, Baldwin, Jackman, and Fisher winningly deliver the jokes. (1:38) (Chun)

A Royal Affair At age 15 in 1766, British princess Caroline (Alicia Vikander) travels abroad to a new life — as queen to the new ruler of Denmark, her cousin. Attractive and accomplished, she is judged a great success by everyone but her husband. King Christian (Mikkel Boe Følsgaard) is just a teenager himself, albeit one whose mental illness makes him behave alternately like a debauched libertine, a rude two year-old, a sulky-rebellious adolescent, and a plain old abusive spouse. Once her principal official duty is fulfilled — bearing a male heir — the two do their best to avoid each other. But on a tour of Europe Christian meets German doctor Johann Friedrich Struenesse (Mads Mikkelsen), a true man of the Enlightenment who not only has advanced notions about calming the monarch's "eccentricities," but proves a tolerant and agreeable royal companion. Lured back to Denmark as the King's personal physician, he soon infects the cultured Queen with the fervor of his progressive ideas, while the two find themselves mutually attracted on less intellectual levels as well. When they start manipulating their unstable but malleable ruler to push much-needed public reforms through in the still basically feudal nation, they begin acquiring powerful enemies. This very handsome-looking history lesson highlights a chapter relatively little-known here, and finds in it an interesting juncture in the eternal battle between masters and servants, the piously self-interested and the secular humanists. At the same time, Nikolaj Arcel's impressively mounted and acted film is also somewhat pedestrian and overlong. It's a quality costume drama, but not a great one. (2:17) (Harvey)

Rust and Bone Unlike her Dark Knight Rises co-star Anne Hathaway, Rust and Bone star Marion Cotillard never seems like she's trying too hard to be sexy, or edgy, or whatever (plus, she already has an Oscar, so the pressure's off). Here, she's a whale trainer at a SeaWorld-type park who loses her legs in an accident, which complicates (but ultimately strengthens) her relationship with Ali (Belgian actor Matthias Schoenaerts, so tremendous in 2011's Bullhead), a single dad trying to make a name for himself as a boxer. Jacques Audiard's follow-up to 2009's A Prophet gets a bit overwrought by its last act, but there's an emotional authenticity in the performances that makes even a ridiculous twist (like, the kind that'll make you exclaim "Are you fucking kidding me?") feel almost well-earned. (2:00) (Eddy)

The Sessions Polio has long since paralyzed the body of Berkeley poet Mark O'Brien (John Hawkes) from the neck down. Of course his mind is free to roam — but it often roams south of the personal equator, where he hasn't had the same opportunities as able-bodied people. Thus he enlists the services of Cheryl (Helen Hunt), a professional sex surrogate, to lose his virginity at last. Based on the real-life figures' experiences, this drama by Australian polio survivor Ben Lewin was a big hit at Sundance this year (then titled The Surrogate), and it's not hard to see why: this is one of those rare inspirational feel-good stories that doesn't pander and earns its tears with honest emotional toil. Hawkes is always arresting, but Hunt hasn't been this good in a long time, and William H. Macy is pure pleasure as a sympathetic priest put in numerous awkward positions with the Lord by Mark's very down-to-earth questions and confessions. (1:35) (Harvey)

Silver Linings Playbook After guiding two actors to Best Supporting Oscars in 2010's The Fighter, director David O. Russell returns (adapting his script from Matthew Quick's novel) with another darkly comedic film about a complicated family that will probably earn some gold of its own. Though he's obviously not ready to face the outside world, Pat (Bradley Cooper) checks out of the state institution he's been court-ordered to spend eight months in after displaying some serious anger-management issues. He moves home with his football-obsessed father (Robert De Niro) and worrywart mother (Jacki Weaver of 2010's Animal Kingdom), where he plunges into a plan to win back his estranged wife. Cooper plays Pat as a man vibrating with troubled energy — always in danger of flying into a rage, even as he pursues his forced-upbeat "silver linings" philosophy. But the movie belongs to Jennifer Lawrence, who proves the chops she showcased (pre-Hunger Games megafame) in 2010's Winter's Bone were no fluke. As the damaged-but-determined Tiffany, she's the left-field element that jolts Pat out of his crazytown funk; she's also the only reason Playbook's dance-competition subplot doesn't feel eye-rollingly clichéd. The film's not perfect, but Lawrence's layered performance — emotional, demanding, bitchy, tough-yet-secretly-tender — damn near is. (2:01) (Eddy)

Skyfall Top marks to Adele, who delivers a magnificent title song to cap off Skyfall's thrilling pre-credits chase scene. Unfortunate, then, that the film that follows squanders its initial promise. After a bomb attack on MI6, the clock is running out for Bond (Daniel Craig) and M (Judi Dench), accused of Cold War irrelevancy in a 21st century full of malevolent, stateless computer hackers. The audience, too, will yearn for a return to simpler times; dialogue about "firewalls" and "obfuscated code" never fails to sound faintly ridiculous, despite the efforts Ben Whishaw as the youthful new head of Q branch. Javier Bardem is creative and creepy as keyboard-tapping villain Raoul Silva, but would have done better with a megalomaniac scheme to take over the world. Instead, a small-potatoes revenge plot limps to a dull conclusion in the middle of nowhere. Skyfall never decides whether it prefers action, bon mots, and in-jokes to ponderous mythologizing and ripped-from-the-headlines speechifying — the result is a unsatisfying, uneven mixture. (2:23) (Ben Richardson)

This is 40 A spin-off of sorts from 2007's Knocked Up, Judd Apatow's This is 40 continues the story of two characters nobody cared about from that earlier film: Debbie (Leslie Mann, Apatow's wife) and Pete (Paul Rudd), plus their two kids (played by Mann and Apatow's kids). Pete and Debbie have accumulated all the trappings of comfortable Los Angeles livin': luxury cars, a huge house, a private personal trainer, the means to throw catered parties and take weekend trips to fancy hotels (and to whimsically decide to go gluten-free), and more Apple products than have ever before been shoehorned into a single film. But! This was crap they got used to having before Pete's record label went into the shitter, and Debbie's dress-shop employee (Charlene Yi, another Knocked Up returnee who is one of two people of color in the film; the other is an Indian doctor who exists so Pete can mock his accent) started stealing thousands from the register. How will this couple and their whiny offspring deal with their financial reality? By arguing! About bullshit! In every scene! For nearly two and a half hours! By the time Melissa McCarthy, as a fellow parent, shows up to command the film's only satisfying scene — ripping Pete and Debbie a new one, which they sorely deserve — you're torn between cheering for her and wishing she'd never appeared. Seeing McCarthy go at it is a reminder that most comedies don't make you feel like stabbing yourself in the face. I'm honestly perplexed as to who this movie's audience is supposed to be. Self-loathing yuppies? Masochists? Apatow's immediate family, most of whom are already in the film? (2:14) (Eddy)

The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn - Part 2 The final installment of the Twilight franchise picks up shortly after the medical-emergency vampirization of last year's Breaking Dawn - Part 1, giving newly undead Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart) just enough time to freshen up after nearly being torn asunder during labor by her hybrid spawn, Renesmee. In a just world, Bella and soul mate Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson) would get more of a honeymoon period, given how badly Part 1's actual honeymoon turned out. Alas, there's just enough time for some soft-focus vampire-on-vampire action (a letdown after all the talk of rowdy undead sex), some catamount hunting, some werewolf posturing, a reunion with Jacob (Taylor Lautner), and a few seconds of Cullen family bonding, and then those creepy Volturi are back, convinced that the Cullens have committed a vampire capital crime and ready to exact penance. Director Bill Condon (1998's Gods and Monsters, 2004's Kinsey) knows what the Twi-hards want and methodically doles it out, but the overall effect is less sweeping action and shivery romance and more "I have bugs crawling on me — and yet I'm bored." Some of that isn't his fault — he bears no responsibility for naming Renesmee, for instance, to say nothing of a January-May subplot that we're asked to wrap our brains around. But the film maintains such a loose emotional grip, shifting clumsily and robotically from comic interludes to unintentionally comic interludes to soaring-music love scenes to attempted pathos to a snowy battlefield where the only moment of any dramatic value occurs. Weighed down by the responsibility of bringing The Twilight Saga to a close, it limps weakly to its anticlimax, leaving one almost — but not quite — wishing for one more installment, a chance for a more stirring farewell. (1:55) (Rapoport)

Wreck-It Ralph Wreck-It Ralph cribs directly from the Toy Story series: when the lights go off in the arcade, video game characters gather to eat, drink, and endure existential crises. John C. Reilly is likable and idiosyncratic as Ralph, the hulking, ham-fisted villain of a game called Fix-It-Felix. Fed up with being the bad guy, Ralph sneaks into gritty combat sim Hero's Duty under the nose of Sergeant Calhoun (Jane Lynch), a blond space marine who mixes Mass Effect's Commander Shepard with a PG-rated R. Lee Ermey. Things go quickly awry, and soon Ralph is marooned in cart-racing candyland Sugar Rush, helping Vanellope Von Schweetz (a manic Sarah Silverman), with Calhoun and opposite number Felix (Jack McBrayer) hot on his heels. Though often aggressively childish, the humor will amuse kids, parents, and occasionally gamers, and the Disney-approved message about acceptance is moving without being maudlin. The animation, limber enough to portray 30 years of changing video game graphics, deserves special praise. (1:34) (Ben Richardson) *