A Haunted House (R) Marlon Wayans stars in and co-writes this parody of found-footage horror movies. Also with Essence Atkins, Marlene Forte, David Koechner, Dave Sheridan, Alanna Ubach, Affion Crockett, Nick Swardson, and Cedric the Entertainer. (Opens Friday)
Argo (R) Ben Affleck stars in and directs this expertly crafted, personality-light thriller. He portrays a real-life CIA exfiltration specialist who in 1980 spirited six Americans who had escaped from the U.S. embassy out of Iran by having them pose as a film crew for a nonexistent movie. The director superbly handles the latter half of the film when it comes to slowly tightening the grip of suspense. However, Chris Terrio’s script barely sketches in the characters, and Affleck’s performance in the lead role as a sad sack with a rocky marriage is undistinguished. The scenes that take place in Hollywood feel lifted from another film, but it’s the only part of the movie that lets the actors (notably Alan Arkin and John Goodman as movie-industry types) have fun. Also with Bryan Cranston, Victor Garber, Tate Donovan, Clea DuVall, Scoot McNairy, Rory Cochrane, Christopher Denham, Kerry Bishé, Sheila Vand, Chris Messina, Zeljko Ivanek, Titus Welliver, Kyle Chandler, Bob Gunton, Richard Kind, and an uncredited Philip Baker Hall.
Cirque du Soleil: Worlds Away (PG) On the one hand, the performances in this movie would be so much more impressive if you were seeing them live. On the other, movie tickets cost much less than any Cirque du Soleil performance. Writer-director Andrew Adamson (Shrek) provides a narrative about a girl (Erica Linz) who pursues an aerialist (Igor Zaripov), but he would have been better off abandoning the story for the circus acts. Several of the acts are set to late Beatles songs, which seems appropriate. It’s all very pretty, if unmoving. Also with Lutz Halbhubner.
Django Unchained (R) Quentin Tarantino’s spaghetti Western/revenge thriller is surprisingly good at confronting the evils of slavery. Jamie Foxx plays a freed slave who helps a bounty hunter (Christoph Waltz) kill his targets in exchange for rescuing his wife (Kerry Washington) from the clutches of a Mississippi slaveowner (Leonardo DiCaprio). The film may just be Tarantino’s funniest to date, aided by a hugely entertaining Waltz. Yet Tarantino does not stint on the brutality visited upon slaves and paints a couple of unforgettable villains produced by the slave economy, played by DiCaprio and Samuel L. Jackson. The shootouts, the in-jokes, and the triumphant ending are here to make the movie’s portrayal of slavery bearable, but they do more than that. They make the movie great fun. Also with Walton Goggins, Dennis Christopher, James Remar, Laura Cayouette, Ato Essandoh, Sammi Rotibi, James Russo, Bruce Dern, Don Johnson, Jonah Hill, and Franco Nero.
The Guilt Trip (PG-13) Seth Rogen’s willingness to engage Barbra Streisand is what makes this comedy. Rogen portrays an organic chemist who takes his mother along on a cross-country trip while he pitches his cleaning product to retailers. Dan Fogelman’s workmanlike script is goosed by the ad-libbing between co-stars, with Streisand looking rejuvenated by the presence of a comic actor who’s willing to push back against her as he depicts a son chafing under the eccentricities of his Jewish mother. At a breezy 95 minutes, this movie pulls gently into its final destination before it wears out its welcome. Also with Brett Cullen, Yvonne Strahovski, Colin Hanks, Nora Dunn, Miriam Margolyes, Kathy Najimy, Adam Scott, and Ari Graynor.
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (PG-13) Peter Jackson’s adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s novel is shot at 48 frames per second, which gives the images clarity and sharpness you’ve never seen on a movie screen and allows camera movement with astonishing fluidity. The great joke is that the story and characters are so poorly handled, the movie won’t look like anything special when you watch it on your TV in six months. Martin Freeman makes an underwhelming Bilbo, and a few nicely executed action sequences can’t make up for Jackson’s cringe-inducing sense of comedy and pacing so flabby that it takes 50 minutes before Bilbo actually leaves his house to help his dwarf comrades defeat the dragon. Other filmmakers have made more powerful epic fantasy-adventures since Jackson; the game has passed him by. Also with Ian McKellen, Richard Armitage, Andy Serkis, Cate Blanchett, Hugo Weaving, Christopher Lee, Barry Humphries, Benedict Cumberbatch, Ian Holm, and Elijah Wood.
The Impossible (PG-13) A movie that leaves very little for a critic to do. Based on the story of a real-life Spanish family, the film stars Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor as British parents of three boys who are separated from one another in Thailand during the tsunami of 2004. Director Juan Antonio Bayona (Orphanage) does a fine job staging the disaster, and there’s a terrific performance by Tom Holland as the oldest of the boys. Elsewhere, the movie functions as a fine if unsubtle tale of survival against steep odds. Also with Samuel Joslin and Oaklee Pendergast.
Jack Reacher (PG-13) Tom Cruise stars in this surprisingly potboilerish thriller as a former military policeman who investigates when an Army sniper is accused of shooting five people dead along the Pittsburgh riverfront. Adapted from Lee Child’s novel One Shot, the movie has a couple of good car chases, some tasty stuff on the police procedural front, and a creepy turn from German filmmaker Werner Herzog as the chief bad guy. Yet writer-director Christopher McQuarrie paces this movie indifferently, and the hero (who’s supposed to be hypercompetent in Child’s novels) is curiously dull-witted at various points. It all makes for a rather average time. Also with Rosamund Pike, Richard Jenkins, David Oyelowo, Alexia Fast, and Robert Duvall.
Life of Pi (PG) Yann Martel’s supposedly unfilmable novel has been most decisively filmed by Ang Lee, and like all of Lee’s masterpieces, it’s completely different from the others. Suraj Sharma plays a shipwrecked 16-year-old Indian boy who is marooned on the open sea for several months with an adult Bengal tiger. Purely as a piece of spectacle, this movie is just glorious, whether Lee is taking in the visual splendors of India or the unlikely events on the water. (Pay the 3D upcharge for this movie.) Yet he doesn’t shortchange his actors, whether that’s the newcomer Sharma or the great Irrfan Khan as the grown-up Pi who narrates his story. This emotionally draining adventure is wondrous, terrifying, and a classic of its kind. Also with Adil Hussain, Tabu, Ayush Tandon, Rafe Spall, and Gérard Depardieu.
Lincoln (PG-13) Steven Spielberg’s take on our nation’s 16th president is an incredibly timely defense of moderation, pragmatism, and realpolitik. Too bad it’s so dry. Daniel Day-Lewis portrays Lincoln as he tries to pass the slavery-abolishing 13th Amendment to the Constitution in 1865. Day-Lewis easily strikes the right balance between Lincoln’s fierce determination and political judgment. Spielberg wrings a fair amount of drama out of the legislative details and does full justice to the messiness of the lawmaking process. However, without more of Lincoln’s soaring rhetoric, the movie may very well leave you unmoved. Also with Sally Field, Tommy Lee Jones, David Strathairn, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, James Spader, John Hawkes, Tim Blake Nelson, Jackie Earle Haley, Bruce McGill, Jared Harris, Lee Pace, Gloria Reuben, Michael Stuhlbarg, David Oyelowo, Lukas Haas, Dane DeHaan, and Hal Holbrook.
Les Misérables (PG-13) The best big-screen version of the bombastic Broadway musical that we were ever likely to get. Tom Hooper records the actors singing live on the set, and his approach yields mostly good results from Hugh Jackman as an anguished Jean Valjean, Samantha Barks outsinging her more famous castmates as Éponine, and Anne Hathaway going hellbent for leather as Fantine. Hooper can’t do much with Russell Crowe’s wobbly baritone (which seems to be emanating from inside a half-crushed beer can), nor can he do anything with the music bogging the show down in the second half as the boring characters of Marius and Cosette (Eddie Redmayne and Amanda Seyfried) take center stage. Still, the cast’s singing and some un-stagey direction save the movie. Also with Sacha Baron Cohen, Helena Bonham Carter, Aaron Tveit, Daniel Huttlestone, Isabelle Allen, and Colm Wilkinson.
Monsters, Inc. (G) The 3D re-release of Pixar’s 2001 animated spectacular wittily imagines the monsters who emerge from closets to scare little kids at night as employees of a utility company that powers the monsters’ world. When a 3-year-old girl accidentally wanders into that world from her closet, the company’s top scarer “Sulley” (voiced by John Goodman) and his assistant Mike (voiced by Billy Crystal) have to get her back to her bedroom without tipping off the firm’s management. The vocal casting isn’t exactly creative, and the movie runs into trouble at the end; little kids’ irrational fears are bigger than the explanation this movie gives us. Yet the writing and visual gags are sharp, and the movie has a dazzling climactic chase through a warehouse of closet doors. Best of all, Pixar’s movies still work the way kids’ imaginations do, as well as looking good. Additional voices by Steve Buscemi, Mary Gibbs, James Coburn, John Ratzenberger, Bob Peterson, Frank Oz, Bonnie Hunt, and Jennifer Tilly.
Not Fade Away (R) The creator of TV’s The Sopranos, David Chase makes a surprisingly pallid filmmaking debut with this coming-of-age drama about a New Jersey kid (John Magaro) in the late 1960s who goes against his family’s wishes to become the lead singer in a rock band. The shaggy-haired newcomer Magaro sings well, but the writing has none of the pop or the insight of The Sopranos, and the movie misses both the ecstatic first flush of rock and the awkwardness of the transition from the old generation to the new. I think I’d rather spend two hours with David Chase going through his record collection. Also with Jack Huston, Will Brill, Bella Heathcote, Dominique McElligott, Christopher McDonald, Molly Price, Brad Garrett, Isiah Whitlock Jr., and James Gandolfini.
Parental Guidance (PG) Billy Crystal and Bette Midler headline this painfully unfunny comedy as a grandparents who travel from Fresno to Atlanta to look after their three grandchildren at the request of their helicopter mom of a daughter (Marisa Tomei). Prepare yourself for a steady stream of pee and poop jokes and jokes about old people who don’t know what Twitter is. Truly nothing works here. Forget parental guidance: Take my guidance and stay away. Also with Tom Everett Scott, Bailee Madison, Joshua Rush, Kyle Harrison Breitkopf, Jennifer Crystal Foley, Rhoda Griffis, and Gedde Watanabe.
Promised Land (PG-13) If you’re a gas drilling opponent who thought this was the movie you were waiting for, be prepared to wait some more. Matt Damon stars in and co-writes Gus Van Sant’s drama as a well-intentioned but misguided gas drilling consultant who thinks he’s saving struggling farmers and small towns by giving them millions to let his company drill on their land. He’s forced to re-examine his values when he encounters resistance in one town from a smug environmentalist (played by co-writer John Krasinski) and some organized opposition. Van Sant tones down the script’s preachiness, but he can’t do anything with its obviousness, nor can he mitigate the mighty cop-out of an ending. Also with Frances McDormand, Rosemarie DeWitt, Terry Kinney, Titus Welliver, Scoot McNairy, Lucas Black, and Hal Holbrook.
Rise of the Guardians (PG) Above-average animated film is about Jack Frost (voiced by Chris Pine) as he is recruited into a superhero league with Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, and the Easter Bunny (voiced by Alec Baldwin, Isla Fisher, and Hugh Jackman) to protect the world’s children against the Boogeyman (voiced by Jude Law). Adapted from William Joyce’s novel, this bogs down in sentimentality near the end, but it has some nice jokes and a nifty voice cast, especially Jackman (using his native Australian accent) as a hypermacho rabbit who’s overly sensitive about his cuddly species. Additional voice by Dakota Goyo.
Silver Linings Playbook (R) Bradley Cooper stars in this volatile, terribly funny comedy as a bipolar former schoolteacher and die-hard Philadelphia Eagles fan who leaves a mental institution to move back in with his parents. Adapting a novel by Matthew Quick, writer-director David O. Russell (The Fighter, Three Kings) captures the rage and instability inside his characters by filming ordinary domestic scenes with a whirling fury. His approach spreads to his actors, including Robert De Niro, bringing more energy than he’s brought in 20 years to the role of the hero’s combative dad, and Jennifer Lawrence, deploying her fierceness for comic effect as a cop’s widow with her own mentally troubled history. This is Russell’s warmest and most likable film, a tribute to the unconditional love that binds you to your family and your football team. Also with Jacki Weaver, Julia Stiles, Anupam Kher, John Ortiz, Shea Whigham, Paul Herman, Dash Mihok, and Chris Tucker.
Skyfall (PG-13) The most interesting Bond girl turns out to be M (Judi Dench) in this bracing return to form for the James Bond series. 007 (Daniel Craig) comes out of a self-imposed sabbatical after a shadowy villain starts to target his boss. Director Sam Mendes can stage a gunfight as well as anyone, but he’s just as interested in seeing Bond interact with an officious political flack (Ralph Fiennes), the new Q (Ben Whishaw), and a sexy fellow agent (Naomie Harris, who sets the screen alight). It all sets up an Oedipal confrontation with one of M’s former agents (Javier Bardem), and the emphasis on M allows Dench to finally stretch her acting muscles in this series. For an agent who has been in the field for 50 years, Bond is looking pretty spry right now. Also with Bérénice Lim Marlohe, Ola Rapace, Rory Kinnear, and Albert Finney.
Texas Chainsaw 3D (R) Alexandra Daddario stars in this latest adventure with a chainsaw-wielding killer. Also with Dan Yeager, Trey Songz, Scott Eastwood, Tania Raymonde, Shawn Sipos, Thom Barry, Richard Riehle, Bill Moseley, and Gunnar Hansen.
This Is 40 (R) Paul Rudd and Leslie Mann reprise their supporting roles from Knocked Up, with Judd Apatow presiding. It turns out those characters can’t carry their own movie. The movie takes place during the week that both halves of this married couple turn 40. Rudd and Mann are brilliant comic actors, and funny bits turn up from Melissa McCarthy as a combative mom and Megan Fox (yes, you read that right) as a hot employee. However, the director often loses control of the tone, with too many scenes devolving into shouting or weepiness. We’re never truly invested in whether this couple’s marriage survives the crises of mid-life. This is Apatow’s weakest directing effort yet. Also with Maude Apatow, Iris Apatow, Jason Segel, Annie Mumolo, Robert Smigel, Charlyne Yi, Albert Brooks, John Lithgow, Chris O’Dowd, and Lena Dunham.
Barbara (PG-13) Christian Petzold’s drama stars Nina Hoss as an East German doctor in the 1980s who is banished to a small country hospital for trying to leave the country. Also with Ronald Zehrfeld, Rainer Bock, Christina Hecke, Claudia Geisler, Peter Weiss, and Deniz Petzold.
Hyde Park on Hudson (R) Roger Michell directs this adaptation of Richard Nelson’s play about a woman (Laura Linney) who has a prime viewing spot as her distant cousin President Franklin Roosevelt (Bill Murray) welcomes King George VI of England (Samuel West) to his mother’s house in upstate New York. Also with Olivia Colman, Elizabeth Marvel, Elizabeth Wilson, Martin McDougall, and Olivia Williams.
Rust and Bone (R) Jacques Audiard (A Prophet) adapts Craig Davidson’s short stories into this French-language romance between a Belgian MMA fighter (Matthias Schoenaerts) and a killer whale trainer (Marion Cotillard) who loses her legs. Also with Armand Verdure, Céline Sallette, Corinne Masiero, Bouli Lanners, and Mourad Frarema.