Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel (PG) If the word “squeakquel” is in the title, the movie must be good, right? The animated singing chipmunks return, to find their stardom threatened by a group of singing female squirrels. Voices by Justin Long, Jesse McCartney, Matthew Gray Gubler, Anna Faris, Amy Poehler, and Christina Applegate. Also with Jason Lee, David Cross, Wendie Malick, and Zachary Levi.
Avatar (PG-13) James Cameron’s first film in 12 years displays all his strengths and his flaws. Set in the 22nd century on a distant planet, the film stars Sam Worthington as a paraplegic Marine who hooks up his brain to the engineered body of a native to infiltrate the locals and learn about their culture. The first hour or so is dazzling stuff indeed, with the alien planet presented as a fully imagined world with gloriously realized flora and fauna – this movie is a cryptozoologist’s dream come true. Yet the romance is bland and riddled with bad dialogue, and both the Earthling villains and the nature-worshipping natives are simplistic caricatures. The film uses the latest in special-effects technology, but the stale story makes it feel like a relic of a bygone era. Also with Zoe Saldana, Stephen Lang, Giovanni Ribisi, Michelle Rodriguez, Joel David Moore, CCH Pounder, Wes Studi, Laz Alonso, Dileep Rao, and Sigourney Weaver.
The Blind Side (PG-13) A Hollywood movie where most of the heroes are dyed-in-the-wool Southern Republicans, though that’s the only non-cliché worth mentioning in this otherwise rote football drama based on the true story of Michael Oher, the homeless African-American teen taken in by a rich white family in Memphis and turned into an NFL-caliber left tackle. Sandra Bullock nicely underplays the role of family matriarch, which could easily have been overdone. Newcomer Quinton Aaron, though, isn’t up to scratch as Oher, and writer-director John Lee Hancock leaves out too many details from Michael Lewis’ book, turning an amazing story into a bland Hollywood product, without any of the uplift that he’s aiming for. Also with Tim McGraw, Lily Collins, Jae Head, Ray McKinnon, Kim Dickens, and Kathy Bates.
Brothers (R) Jim Sheridan’s drama stars Tobey Maguire as a U.S. Marine who’s taken hostage in Afghanistan, while his wife (Natalie Portman) and ex-con brother (Jake Gyllenhaal) try to move on after being mistakenly told that he’s been killed. This starry cast can’t match the raw power of the similarly titled 2005 Danish movie on which this film is based. Still, Maguire and Gyllenhaal are well-matched as brothers, and Maguire in particular is terrific as the family’s responsible sibling in the first half and then as a violent, unstable, psychologically traumatized soldier in the latter scenes. For those who haven’t seen the Danish film, this is a fair substitute. Also with Sam Shepard, Clifton Collins Jr., Mare Winningham, Ethan Suplee, Bailee Madison, Taylor Geare, and Carey Mulligan.
A Christmas Carol (PG) After so many different versions of Charles Dickens’ story, what does Robert Zemeckis’ latest animated version have to add? Not much, although Jim Carrey makes a much better Scrooge than you’d think, and the ghost of Jacob Marley (voiced by Gary Oldman) is rendered in truly horrifying fashion. The motion-capture animation (better than it was in The Polar Express and Beowulf) still distances you from the emotions in the story, and the straightforward retelling underscores the flimsiness of Dickens’ original material. Technically accomplished as this is, it’s hard to warm up to. Additional voices by Robin Wright, Bob Hoskins, Daryl Sabara, Cary Elwes, Lesley Manville, Fionnula Flanagan, and Colin Firth.
Did You Hear About the Morgans? (PG-13) The news isn’t good. This is Hugh Grant’s third comedy with writer-director Marc Lawrence (Music and Lyrics, Two Weeks Notice), and the third time is decidedly not the charm. Grant and Sarah Jessica Parker play a bickering Manhattan couple who fall back in love when they’re forced to hide out in Wyoming after witnessing a mob hit. The script is tone-deaf when it comes to these dimwitted city slickers discovering the pleasures of living in Middle America, but that would matter less if Grant and Parker had any chemistry together or if the jokes were funny. Sadly, neither is the case. Also with Mary Steenburgen, Sam Elliott, Michael Kelly, Wilford Brimley, Jesse Liebman, Dana Ivey, and Elisabeth Moss.
Invictus (PG-13) One of the 20th century’s great leaders deserved a better movie than this sluggish, fatally reverent drama about Nelson Mandela (Morgan Freeman) and how he helped unite South Africa by throwing his support behind the national rugby team in 1995. The script focuses so much on the political calculations that, for all its attempts to portray Mandela’s fractured family life, the leader never comes off fully as a human being. This inspirational sports story plays to precisely none of Clint Eastwood’s strengths as a director. He does a decent job filming the rugby sequences, but he’s never been a filmmaker to rouse audiences from their seats in jubilation. His failure to do so here turns the movie into a museum piece. Also with Matt Damon, Tony Kgoroge, Patrick Mofokeng, Matt Stern, Julian Lewis Jones, Adjoa Andoh, and Leleti Khumalo.
It’s Complicated (R) This movie’s trailers give away all its best jokes – why do they do that? Nancy Meyers’ latest romantic comedy is about a divorcée (Meryl Streep) who has an affair with her remarried ex-husband (Alec Baldwin). The ratio of jokes to sentimental crap is better than it was in Meyers’ previous films (Something’s Gotta Give, The Holiday), and there are nice turns by Baldwin and by John Krasinski as a family member who finds out what’s going on. On the downside, Streep’s fussy performance is too much for such a normal role, and Steve Martin (as an architect who’s a better romantic option for her) is hamstrung by his nerdy character except for one scene when he gets stoned. Overall, this is a touch better than mediocre and no more. Also with Lake Bell, Zoe Kazan, Caitlin Fitzgerald, Hunter Parrish, Mary Kay Place, Alexandra Wentworth, and Rita Wilson.
Nine (PG-13) Based on the Broadway musical that in turn was based on Fellini’s 8½, this flawed, occasionally fabulous musical stars Daniel Day-Lewis as a world-renowned Italian film director in the 1960s who hallucinates song-and-dance numbers involving all the women in his life while trying to think of an idea for his next movie. Penélope Cruz is good for three spellbinding minutes in her number “A Phone Call from the Vatican,” and Marion Cotillard will tear out your heart with her song “My Husband Makes Movies.” Maury Yeston’s songs are musically uninspired and riddled with clichés, and director/co-choreographer Rob Marshall’s work falls short of what he did in Chicago. Still, the performances and an intelligent script carry this musical. Also with Nicole Kidman, Kate Hudson, Fergie, Judi Dench, Ricky Tognazzi, Giuseppe Cederna, and Sophia Loren.
Old Dogs (PG) Let’s see, um, “These old dogs need to learn some new tricks!” No, that’s wrong. “Like an old dog, this movie should be put down.” How about, “This movie stinks so bad, it should be called Wet Dogs.” Wait, I’ve got it: “Gaaah!” Yes, that’s the right reaction to this idiotic, overacted, borderline racist, soul-killingly terrible comedy starring John Travolta and Robin Williams as business partners who are informed of the existence of the latter’s seven-year-old twins (Conner Rayburn and Ella Bleu Travolta) after their mother (Kelly Preston) shows up to dump the kids in their laps for two weeks. The slapstick bits here are carried off joylessly, uninventively, and with relentless contempt for any scrap of intelligence you might have. Also with Seth Green, Matt Dillon, Lori Loughlin, Amy Sedaris, Rita Wilson, Ann-Margret, and the late Bernie Mac.
Planet 51 (PG) For once the Earthlings aren’t plundering an alien planet and running roughshod over the natives. In this animated film, a buffoonish lone astronaut (voiced by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson) lands on a planet of green-skinned creatures that hunt him down because they’re paranoid and not terribly bright. Sadly, that’s the only subversive note in this weak, derivative piece in which the aliens speak English and live in a place like 1950s America, for reasons that are never explained. There are much better options out there for family entertainment. Additional voices by Jessica Biel, Justin Long, Seann William Scott, Gary Oldman, and John Cleese.
Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire (R) Not as good as the hype, but there’s enough truth to the hype to make this film worth checking out. Gabourey Sidibe portrays a fat, illiterate 16-year-old schoolgirl in Harlem who’s been repeatedly raped by her now-absent father and abused physically by her mother (Mo’Nique). Director Lee Daniels embraces the filth and squalor of the setting but also plays off it with some skillful fantasy sequences that Precious uses to cope. The film is obvious, skirts a bevy of economic and practical issues, and gives Precious her deliverance too easily. Yet it also has a terrific performance by Mo’Nique as a monster with understandable motives, and it’s willing to challenge the audience with its depiction of poverty rather than gently washing over it. Also with Paula Patton, Sherri Shepherd, Stephanie Andujar, Chyna Layne, Amina Robinson, Angelic Zambrana, Lenny Kravitz, and Mariah Carey.
The Princess and the Frog (PG) Much has been made of this being the first Disney film with an African-American heroine, but really this is no different from the animated musicals that the studio put out in the 1990s. Therein lies the problem. The main character (voiced by Anika Noni Rose) is a waitress in 1920s New Orleans who’s transformed into a frog after kissing a similarly froggified prince (voiced by Bruno Campos). The story is filled out by predictable slapstick and supporting characters, plus a batch of Randy Newman songs that imitate jazz, Tin Pan Alley, and zydeco to undistinguished effect. Some bright voice acting can’t disguise the lack of imagination here. Additional voices by Keith David, Michael-Leon Wooley, Jennifer Cody, Jim Cummings, Jenifer Lewis, Terrence Howard, John Goodman, and Oprah Winfrey.
The Road (R) Every frame of this Cormac McCarthy adaptation trembles with grim nobility, but it flirts with so many different genres (sci-fi, disaster, art house, family drama, zombie flick) that it never develops an identity of its own. Viggo Mortensen stars as a lone man trying to get his young son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) to the coast in a post-apocalyptic world. The movie suffers from a terminal case of pretentious vagueness, and it feels dramatically rigged to make its characters crawl. The result is thin and disposable, an ambitious exercise in wheel-spinning. Also with Charlize Theron, Guy Pearce, Molly Parker, Garret Dillahunt, and Robert Duvall. – Jimmy Fowler
Sherlock Holmes (PG-13) Most of the fun in this loud, busy, moderately diverting thriller comes from the comic bickering between Robert Downey Jr. (playing Holmes as a rumpled but swashbuckling action hero) and Jude Law (a smarter, fitter Watson who’s less tolerant of Holmes’ personality quirks). The great detective goes up against a lord (Mark Strong) who claims to possess supernatural powers in this latest adventure, which is not to be found in Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories. The plotting is ramshackle, and director Guy Ritchie isn’t comfortable with the period setting. But making Holmes and Watson more equal partners is a terrific idea, and the rapport between the languorous, scruffy Downey and the light, smooth Law bodes well for this duo’s further adventures. Also with Rachel McAdams, Eddie Marsan, Kelly Reilly, Geraldine James, Hans Matheson, Robert Maillet, and James Fox.
The Twilight Saga: New Moon (PG-13) They changed directors for the sequel, yet the flaws from the original remain: This vampire film is still poorly paced and edited, the special effects are still subpar, and the romanticism here is still absurd rather than sublime. Kristen Stewart returns as a high-school girl who falls in with a Native American boy (Taylor Lautner) and his clan of werewolves after her vampire boyfriend (Robert Pattinson) leaves her. The new film is intentionally funnier, several of the supporting actors click into their roles (Ashley Greene, Billy Burke, Anna Kendrick), and Michael Sheen adds a nice dainty performance as a vampire overlord. The improvement is noticeable, but it’s not enough to make this into a good movie. Also with Graham Greene, Gil Birmingham, Chaske Spencer, Rachelle Lefevre, and Dakota Fanning.
2012 (PG-13) Unintentionally funny, this latest piece of disaster porn by Roland Emmerich stars John Cusack as a hack sci-fi writer trying to move his family to a safe place when earthquakes and tsunamis kill off more than 99.99 percent of the Earth’s population. The filmmakers barely try to come up with a scientific explanation; they’d much rather show L.A. dropping into the ocean and St. Peter’s Basilica crushing a bunch of worshippers in Rome. The thing is, you can see all this in the film’s trailer and TV spots without having to sit through 157 minutes’ worth of weepy melodrama. With disaster flicks like these, the apocalypse can’t come soon enough. Also with Chiwetel Ejiofor, Amanda Peet, Oliver Platt, Thandie Newton, Tom McCarthy, Liam James, Morgan Lily, Zlatko Buric, Beatrice Rosen, Chin Han, Osric Chau, Blu Mankuma, George Segal, Woody Harrelson, and Danny Glover.
Up in the Air (R) This breezy comedy catches the nation’s recessionary mood, but it’d be a great film regardless of the economic climate. George Clooney plays a corporate executive who specializes in firing workers at large companies and loves to travel. Jason Reitman directs this movie slickly and writes dialogue (with co-writer Sheldon Turner) that’s good enough to eat. The relationships between the hero and a fellow traveler whom he hooks up with (Vera Farmiga) and a junior executive (Anna Kendrick) are carefully shaded. A late interlude at a wedding almost tips the movie over into sentimentality, but Reitman steers it away from a conventional romantic ending toward something much more interesting. This story of a loner made to confront his solitary lifestyle is told in brilliant and highly entertaining style. Also with Jason Bateman, Melanie Lynskey, Danny McBride, Amy Morton, Sam Elliott, J.K. Simmons, and Zach Galifianakis.
The Young Victoria (PG) Emily Blunt stars in this not terribly exciting drama about the early years of Queen Victoria’s reign, detailing her romance with Prince Albert (Rupert Friend) and the political pitfalls she had to negotiate as a teenage monarch. French-Canadian director Jean-Marc Vallée makes everything look good, and the largely British cast fills the roles with their customary professionalism. But there’s a notable lack of thrill in the tales of palace intrigue, and even an assassination attempt on the queen fails to generate much in the way of interest. If you’re looking for a Victorian Era period piece, you’re better off with Sherlock Holmes. Also with Paul Bettany, Miranda Richardson, Jim Broadbent, Thomas Kretschmann, Jesper Christensen, Harriet Walter, Julian Glover, and Mark Strong.
Broken Embraces (R) Pedro Almodóvar’s latest romantic drama stars Lluís Homar as a blind screenwriter remembering his former career as a movie director and his doomed romance with his leading lady (Penélope Cruz). Also with Blanca Portillo, Tamar Novas, José Luis Gómez, Rubén Ochandiano, Ángela Molina, Chus Lampreave, Kiti Manver, Lola Dueñas, and Rossy de Palma.
Crazy Heart (R) Jeff Bridges stars in this drama as a washed-up, hard-living country music legend trying to get his life back in order. Also with Maggie Gyllenhaal, Colin Farrell, Tom Bower, Ryan Bingham, and Robert Duvall.
Me and Orson Welles (PG-13) Richard Linklater’s adaptation of Robert Kaplow’s novel stars Zac Efron as an aspiring actor who falls in with Welles’ theatrical troupe in the 1930s. Also with Claire Danes, Christian McKay, Zoe Kazan, Ben Chaplin, Eddie Marsan, and Kelly Reilly.
A Single Man (R) The debut filmmaking effort of fashion designer Tom Ford is this adaptation of a Christopher Isherwood novel about an English professor (Colin Firth) trying to cope with the sudden death of his longtime gay companion. Also with Julianne Moore, Matthew Goode, Nicholas Hoult, Lee Pace, Jon Kortajarena, and Ginnifer Goodwin.