JACK REACHER. The Internet has been abuzz for months with chatter about Tom Cruise taking on this role. I don't have any previous experience with the character (drawn from a series of novels by Lee Child), but he's apparently supposed to be some kind of hulking drifter with savant tendencies when it comes to investigation and brutality. As far as I'm concerned, this hardly matters since Cruise has more than enough charisma, screen presence and athletic ability to play bigger than his actual size. What's more troubling is that, once again, he seems to have thrown his support behind a movie that's well beneath his formidable talents.
Reacher drifts into Pittsburgh in the wake of a horrifying, seemingly random mass killing. Turns out he's familiar with the prime suspect, an Army sniper who bugged out in Baghdad years before and turned the rifle on a handful of civilian contractors. Reacher was the Army investigator assigned to the case, which, though unassailable, got disappeared because the "victims" turned out to be high-order bad guys. But Reacher, ever the moral arbiter, swore to the shooter to exact justice if he ever stepped out of line in the future. Now he's back to keep his word, and even though it looks like another open and shut case, our man's gotta do the due diligence, uncovering an elaborate frame-job in the process.
As I've not read any of Child's books, I don't know whether to blame him or writer/director Christopher McQuarrie (Way of the Gun, screenplay on The Usual Suspects) for the clumsy exposition, scant characterizations and unlikely dialogue. I tend to think McQuarrie was unfortunately faithful to his source material and that it simply doesn't translate to the big screen.
The movie certainly has distinct tone and pacing, with nods to film noir and the work of Don Siegel (Dirty Harry, Charley Varrick), but it is too plodding to be compelling. Maybe even more troubling is the PG-13 rating. This movie is filled with scenes of horrific violence but shot and edited so that their impact is completely undermined. It's rendered in such broad strokes that even the protagonist's somewhat dubious moral ambiguity and resolute readiness to do harm if called upon seem simplistic and childish.
Cruise is fun to watch, as usual, and legendary weirdo/genius filmmaker Werner Herzog (Aguirre: The Wrath of God, Grizzly Man) plays a bad guy with a milky eye who chewed off his own necrotic fingers in a frozen gulag. So at least it's got that going for it. PG13. 130m.
THIS IS 40. With the crazy financial success of the good-natured, crass silliness of The 40 Year Old Virgin (2005) Judd Apatow bought himself the creative freedom to make a series of intensely personal, often hilarious movies about the process of becoming an adult. Knocked Up (2007) follows an accidental couple through the wilderness of attraction, pregnancy and adult responsibilities. Funny People (2009) is a bittersweet take on the nature of fame, financial success and mortality. With This Is 40 Apatow goes deeper still into semi-autobiography, detailing the shifting fortunes and interpersonal vagaries of a successful, loving and screwed-up family.
Paul Rudd and Leslie Mann (Apatow's wife in real life) reprise their roles from Knocked Up as Pete and Debbie, a suburban power couple who seem to have everything going for them. He runs an indie record label, she a hip clothing boutique. They've got two charming, wise-cracking daughters (played by Apatow and Mann's kids) and a beautiful house. On paper, everything's coming up roses. But one of her employees is stealing from the store, and his label's future is entirely dependent on the success of a new Graham Parker record. Their increasing financial woes and the advancing specter of middle age throw them into a scary tailspin of annoyance and recrimination.
Somehow, Apatow's movies keep getting funnier and more mature at the same time. From start to finish This Is 40 pops with big laughs, poignant moments and insightful observations about married life. As a portrait of the sometimes impossible job of sharing a life, it feels almost embarrassingly honest and authentic. As a straight-ahead R-rated comedy, it's by far the funniest movie I've seen this year; a success by any measure. R. 134m.
A LATE QUARTET. This is an actors' movie -- one of those solemn, self-important character studies that critics and armchair intellectuals like so much. I get it, and I can appreciate it for its successes, but that doesn't mean I have to like it.
Philip Seymour Hoffman, Mark Ivanir, Catherine Keener and Christopher Walken play chamber musicians in an acclaimed string quartet. Hoffman and Keener are the married couple with a gifted violinist daughter and relationship issues. Ivanir is the egomaniacal genius first chair violin. Walken's the avuncular Juilliard professor and cellist who brought them all together. His Parkinson's diagnosis threatens to tear the group apart. They argue a lot, have affairs, play beautiful music together and live in the rarefied atmosphere of very successful New York society.
The characters are vividly rendered, and Walken does some of the best acting of his career. But the world of the movie feels tiny and airless, all but impenetrable. Nobody has a point of view I can relate to, and there are no surprises. As a showcase for actors, it works. As a compelling story? Not so much. R. 105m.
-- John J. Bennett
DJANGO UNCHAINED. Merry Christmas, lovers of cinematic badassery. The incomparable Quentin Tarantino brings his grindhouse aesthetic to this tale of slavery and revenge set in the antebellum south, starring Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio and Samuel L. Jackson. R. 165m.
LES MISÉRABLES. Merry Christmas, lovers of musicals based on French historical novels. Director Tom Hooper (The King's Speech) brings the Broadway fixture to the silver screen with songbirding from Hugh Jackman, Anne Hathaway and Russell Crowe. PG13. 157m.
PARENTAL GUIDANCE. Merry Christmas, lovers of Billy Crystal and Bette Midler. They star as grandparents using old-school discipline on their wacky, 21st century grandkids in this comedy from director Andy Fickman, best known for directing movies starring The Rock. PG. 104m.
Did you notice? The world didn't end! We humans sure like thinking about disaster, though, don't we? To wit, the timelessness of H.G. Wells' 1898 novel The War of the Worlds. See the 1953 movie adaptation at this Thursday's Sci-Fi Pint and Pizza Night at the Arcata Theatre Lounge. Doors at 6, movie at 7. Speaking of adaptations (segue alert!), dive into the brilliant and tortured mind of screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (as portrayed by Nicolas Cage) in Spike Jonze's meta-comedy masterpiece Adaptation (2002), Friday night at 8. Sunday's family feature is Ants, the computer-animated insect comedy from 1998 that's not A Bug's Life. 6 p.m. And Sci-Fi Pint and Pizza Night rolls around again next Wednesday with camp classic Bride of the Gorilla (1951).
THE HOBBIT. Peter Jackson's gonna milk this Middle Earth business for all it's worth, isn't he? This bloated Lord of the Rings prequel (part one of three) is a drag. PG13. 169m.
THE GUILT TRIP. Odd couple road comedy starring Seth Rogen as The Seth Rogen Character and Barbra Streisand as his embarrassing Jewish mother. PG13. 95m.
LIFE OF PI. Ang Lee's adaptation of the bestselling book by Yann Martel is a visual feast, a technological marvel and a glib homily about spirituality. PG. 127m.
LINCOLN. Daniel Day-Lewis delivers a bravura performance in Steven Spielberg's handsome and rousing biopic, which portrays the deft political wrangling of our 16th president. PG13. 149m.
MONSTERS, INC. 3D. See, there's a prequel coming out next summer called Monsters University, so obviously you should take the kids to see the original in 3D. G. 92m.
RISE OF THE GUARDIANS. Santa, the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy and Jack Frost team up to make kids believe in them again. PG. 97m.
SKYFALL. James Bond battles his Freudian demons and a swishy-sinister Javier Bardem in one of the most satisfying 007 films to date. PG13. 143m.
-- Ryan Burns