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Unhappy Families

The surest way to tell that it's Christmas in Hollywoodland

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Previews

Opening Friday, Dec. 11, is Clint Eastwood's Invictus. Based on a book by John Carlin, the film centers on Nelson Mandela, recently elected as the first black president of South Africa, as he tries to use the 1995 Rugby World Cup to unify his country. Morgan Freeman is Mandela and Matt Damon is the rugby captain for the South African team. Rated PG-13 for brief strong language. 134 m. At the Broadway, Mill Creek and the Minor.

Disney brings us The Princess and the Frog, an animated tale presumably inspired by the Grimm Brothers' "The Frog Princess." With music by Randy Newman and set in the Louisiana bayous, Anika Noni Rose (Dreamgirls) is the voice of the beautiful girl who kisses the frog. Rated G. 97 m. At the Broadway, Fortuna and Mill Creek.

It's the next best thing to seeing them live. Instead of driving several hours, save a few bucks and see Dave Matthews Band in 3D. Special guests include Ben Harper and Relentless7 and Gogol Bordello. Rated PG. 120m. At Fortuna.

Reviews

BROTHERS: Based on a plot summary of the 2004 Danish film Brodre (I did not see the film), David Benioff's (Kite Runner; X-Men Origins: Wolverine) screenplay for Brothers hews closely to that of the Danish screenwriter Susanne Bier. The story outline is simple: Just as Tommy Cahill (Jake Gyllenhaal) is released from prison, his tightly wound brother Captain Sam Cahill (Tobey Maguire) is redeployed to Afghanistan.

Even though they are brothers, the two seem to come from a different gene pool. Sam is married to Grace (an excellent Natalie Portman) and has two young daughters. He has a strong sense of duty to family and country, while Tommy drinks too much and seems to get into constant trouble. No wonder that their father Hank (Sam Shepard in a mostly throwaway role) scorns Tommy and totally supports Sam.

While in Afghanistan, Sam goes missing after a helicopter crash and is presumed dead. As a result, Tommy steps up to the plate and starts to help Grace with the house and the children and gradually works his way into all their hearts. But Sam has been captured and is not dead and when he is rescued and returns home, the expected domestic drama plays out.

In fact, although the film does show scenes of Sam's imprisonment, this is not a film about war as much as it is a family story using the war as a catalyst for delving into matters of family loyalty and responsibility. Although he tries to suppress it, what Sam goes through during his capture renders him unable to deal with his domestic life, and the entire family becomes unstuck as a result.

The story of brotherly rivalry is an old one (Cain and Abel, Jacob and Esau for example) and Brothers always seems on the verge of invoking these narrative archetypes, with the father's character being a case in point. But for the most part, the actors manage to particularize their characters, particularly Portman, who brings nice subtle shadings to her role. The other standout acting comes from Taylor Geare as the younger daughter, Maggie. Geare's interactions with the adults in the film are some of its finest and most real moments. Rated R for language and some disturbing violent content. 110 m. At the Broadway and Mill Creek.

EVERYBODY'S FINE: Based in a very general way on the 1990 Italian film Stanno tutti bene, which starred Marcello Mastroianni, Everybody's Fine actually looks back much further in Italian film history, in terms of its sensibility, to the weepie Bicycle Thief. Unlike most weepies and films of that ilk that only gradually layer in the tear-inducing sentimentality, Everybody's Fine hits you with the gooey stuff from the very beginning and never lets up.

I don't particularly blame the actors here, although all have done much better work, but rather the script, which simply sets up one pathetic situation after the other with no depth to any of them.

The story centers on Frank Goode (Robert De Niro), a widower first seen puttering around his garden. When all of his children cancel out on their holiday visits, Frank, against the advice of his doctor, decides to surprise each with a visit via trains and buses.

In New York, his painter son David is not home. On to Chicago, he gets a brush-off from his daughter Amy (Kate Beckinsale) and leaves after one night for Denver to see musician son Robert (Sam Rockwell), perhaps the film's most effective sequence. Finally, he visits actor daughter Rosie (Drew Barrymore) in Vegas. At each stop, he imagines the children when they were young, and it becomes apparent that all of his children have lied to him, being used to having their actual lives filtered through their mother.

The story wrings maximum pathos from each situation, and the viewers need only wait for the telegraphed crisis that will bring the family back together. To be fair, many viewers will enjoy this film more than this hard-hearted reviewer. So by all means, go and cry yourself a river while I dream of De Niro in his signature roles. Rated PG-13 for thematic elements and brief strong language. 100m. At the Movies, Mill Creek and Fortuna.

ARMORED: Armored wasn't screened in advance for reviewers, so I was expecting the worst. Instead, I got a very pleasant surprise. The film is a carefully constructed effective heist film featuring at least two major stars in Matt Dillon and Laurence Fishburne, along with the always-enjoyable French actor Jean Reno, so I am puzzled by the studio's marketing strategy (or lack thereof).

The story centers on a group of armored car employees led, in a way, by Mike Cochrone (Dillon). Each morning, Mike picks up Ty Hackett (Columbus Short, Cadillac Records), a single dad and a war hero who was awarded the Silver Star in Iraq, en route to work where Ty is a rookie trying to earn his security guard shield. The war hero aspect is not an arbitrarily chosen character trait but a crucial narrative point.

Ty is also in deep financial trouble and as a result he is pressured into joining a planned $42 million heist by Mike, joining a group that includes Quinn (Reno), Raines (Fishburne), Palmer (Prison Break's Amaury Nolasco) and Dobbs (Jericho's Skeet Ulrich). It's supposed to be a bloodless caper, but naturally things go horribly awry.

At its center, though, this is a film about character, particularly the character that is exhibited in dire circumstances. Violence does eventually break out, but director Nimród Antal keeps it strictly in the service of the plot and for character revelation.

When initially persuading Ty to join the group, Mike told him "There's no bad guys here." As it turns out, there are almost no good guys. This is a solidly acted, well-directed film with a nice ironic twist for an ending. Rated PG-13 for sequences of intense violence, some disturbing images and brief strong language. 88m. At the Broadway.

Continuing

2012. The world blows up despite John Cusack's fine acting abilities. Rated PG-13. 158m. At the Broadway, Mill Creek and Fortuna.

THE BLIND SIDE. A homeless African-American youth is taken in by a well-to-do white family who help him realize his football potential. Rated PG-13. 126m. At the Broadway, the Minor, Fortuna and Mill Creek.

COUPLES RETREAT. Vince Vaughn leads a group of married friends to a tropical island resort in Couples Retreat. They soon discover that participation in the hotel's couples therapy is not optional. Rated PG-13. 108m. At the Movies.

A CHRISTMAS CAROL. Disney does Dickens (in 3D!) Rated PG. 96m. At the Broadway.

THE FANTASTIC MR. FOX. Wes Anderson directs this stop-motion animated adaptation of the Roald Dahl novel. Rated PG. 87m. At the Broadway.

THE MEN WHO STARE AT GOATS. Ewan McGregor plays a reporter looking for his big break and George Clooney used to stare at goats. Oh, for a government job. Rated R. 93m. At the Movies.

NINJA ASSASSIN. South Korean pop star Rain plays the world's deadliest Ninja who finds himself in a battle with the Ozunu Clan that trained him. Rated R. 99m. At the Broadway and Mill Creek.

OLD DOGS. Robin Williams and John Travolta attempt to teach themselves some new tricks. Rated PG. 88m. At the Broadway and Fortuna.

PLANET 51. Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson lays the smackdown on the family-friendly, animated genre. Lots of aliens. Rated PG. 91m. At the Broadway, Fortuna and Mill Creek.

TRANSYLMANIA. College students embark on a wild, sexy, vampire-filled semester. Rated R. 95m. At the Movies.

TWILIGHT SAGA: NEW MOON. Teenage vampires are the cutest vampires. Rated PG-13. 130m. At the Broadway, Mill Creek, the Minor and Fortuna.

WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE. Max journeys to the land of Wild Things where he becomes the new ruler, but soon finds that relationships are harder than he thought. Rated PG. 94m. At the Movies.

WHIP IT. Drew Barrymore makes her directorial debut with a Roller Derby flick. Sweet. Rated PG-13. 113m. At the Movies.

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