This undated publicity image provided by Universal Pictures shows Russell Crowe as Javert, center, in a scene from the motion-picture adaptation of "Les Misérables, directed by Tom Hooper. (AP Photo/Universal Pictures, Laurie Sparham, File)
4 stars, excellent; 3 stars, good;
2 stars, fair; 1 star, poor
ANNA KARENINA — Joe Wright’s lovely adaptation of the Tolstoy opus stars the filmmaker’s “Pride & Prejudice and “Atonement muse, Keira Knightley, as the Russian princess who tumbles into a passionate affair, jeopardizing her marriage and social standing. Shot in a theater — not just on its stage, but in the grand hall’s every nook and cranny — this is an interpretation full of deliberate artifice, all the better to let the real emotions burst through. R for sex, violence, adult themes.
“CHASING ICE” 1∕2 — Watching a glacier can be like watching paint dry — there’s a reason the phrase “glacial speed” exists — until something happens. And it happens, repeatedly, in Jeff Orlowski’s fascinating documentary “Chasing Ice.” We watch two researchers, cold and bored after long hours manning cameras in Iceland, suddenly animated as a huge crack forms in a glacier; it splits off and, like a vast ship, majestically floats away under the icy waters. “Chasing Ice,” a winner at numerous film festivals, documents the Extreme Ice Project, founded by acclaimed environmental photographer James Balog. The photography is often beautiful (the blue glaciers sparkle in the sun like massive sapphires), but it’s disturbing — and sure to convince any climate-change doubters. In time-lapse photography, glaciers slip away before our eyes, becoming, in Balog’s words, “like an old, decrepit man, falling back into the earth and dying.” 75 minutes. Not rated.
DJANGO UNCHAINED — For his latest blood fest, Quentin Tarantino largely replays all of his other blood fests, specifically his last flick, “Inglourious Basterds.” In that 2009 tale of wickedly savage retribution, Allied Jewish soldiers get to rewrite World War II history by going on a killing spree of Nazis. In Tarantino’s new tale of wickedly savage retribution, a black man (Jamie Foxx) gets to rewrite Deep South history by becoming a bounty hunter on a killing spree of white slave owners and overseers just before the Civil War. Granted, there’s something gleefully satisfying in watching evil people get what they have coming. But the film is Tarantino at his most puerile and least inventive, the premise offering little more than cold, nasty revenge and barrels of squishing, squirting blood. The usual Tarantino genre mishmash — a dab of blaxploitation here, a dollop of Spaghetti Western there — is so familiar now that it’s tiresome, more so because the filmmaker continues to linger with chortling delight over every scene, letting conversations run on interminably and gunfights carry on to grotesque excess. Bodies bursting blood like exploding water balloons? Perversely fun the first five or six times, pretty dreary the 20th or 30th. Tarantino always gets good actors who deliver, though, and it’s the performances by Foxx, Leonardo DiCaprio, Christoph Waltz and Samuel L. Jackson that make the film intermittently entertaining amid moments when the characters are either talking one another to death or just plain killing each other. R for strong graphic violence throughout, a vicious fight, language and some nudity. 165 minutes.
GUILT TRIP — Maybe on paper — a cocktail napkin, perhaps, but certainly not the shooting script — “The Guilt Trip” seemed like a good idea. Take a geeky grown-up with no dating or mating skills and put him in a car for a cross-country road trip with his smothering, motor-mouth mom. Cast Seth Rogen, the mumbly, deadpan doofus of a hundred Apatow-ian comedies, and Barbra Streisand, the Hollywood icon and ace screwball star of “What’s Up, Doc?” fame, and what could go wrong? ell, nothing actually goes terribly wrong in “The Guilt Trip,” it’s just that nothing goes terribly right, either. The Dan Fogelman (writer) / Anne Fletcher (director) film, which winds its way from North Jersey to northern California, is all-too-evocative of a real-life road trip: Moments of illuminating talk, of promising pit-stops to take in the great sights or enjoy an unexpectedly delicious meal, interspersed with interminable stretches of tedium. Rogen is Andy Brewster, a science-nerd inventor who is trying to sell his environmentally friendly cleaning product to a big chain. His social skills and salesmanship talents, alas, are sorely lacking, and he’s fast sinking into debt. Streisand is Joyce, a widow, and a proud but puzzled mother who can’t understand why her son can’t find a beautiful young woman to settle down with. PG-13 for profanity, adult themes.
HITCHCOCK 1∕2 — The man who made “Psycho” was no lightweight, though he kind of comes off that way in this portrait of Alfred Hitchcock. Starring Anthony Hopkins as Hitchcock and Helen Mirren as his wife and collaborator, Alma, the film puts a featherlight yet entertaining touch on the behind-the-scenes struggle to make the mother of all slasher films. Hitchcock’s very dark side gets superficial treatment as the film offers the cinematic equivalent of psychobabble to explore the director’s notorious gluttony, sexual repression and idolization of his leading ladies. Though shallow, the film has a playful quality that often makes it good fun, its spirit of whimsy a wink that director Sacha Gervasi and his team know they’re riffing on Hitchcock’s merrily macabre persona and not examining the man with any great depth or insight. PG-13 for some violent images, sexual content and thematic material.
THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY 1∕2 — Stuffed with Hollywood’s latest technology, Peter Jackson’s “The Lord of the Rings” prelude is some eye candy that truly dazzles and some that utterly distracts, at least in its test-run of 48 frames a second, double the projection rate that has been standard since silent-film days. It’s also overstuffed with prologues, flashbacks and long, boring councils among dwarves, wizards and elves as Jackson tries to mine enough story out of J.R.R. Tolkien’s mythology to build another trilogy. The 48-frame version offers remarkably lifelike images, but the view is almost too real at times, the crystal pictures bleaching away the painterly quality of traditional film and exposing sets and props as movie fakery. PG-13 for extended sequences of intense fantasy action violence and frightening images.
JACK REACHER 1∕2 — Whatever you think of Tom Cruise, you know he’s not 6-feet-5 and well over 200 pounds, which is the way author Lee Child describes his crime-solving/ justice-dispensing ex-military policeman, Jack Reacher. But even if Cruise isn’t as physically imposing as the guy, he can still bring the intimidation, as he proves in “Jack Reacher.” Cruise carries off the part with a bruising panache, as at home in a brawl or car chase as he is in droll banter with the mere mortals who surround him. Cruise’s gift as an action hero is that he believes these tough-guy lines, or makes us believe them. When he twists a bad-guy’s fingers he says, “Look at your friends (already beaten up). Look at my face. Do you EVER want to see me again?” We buy it. You don’t need to be 6-feet-five and 210 pounds to manage that.
PG-13 for violence, language and some drug material
LES MISERABLES 1∕2 — Tom Hooper’s extravaganza, big-screen telling of the beloved musical is as relentlessly driven as the ruthless Inspector Javert himself. It simply will not let up until you’ve Felt Something — powerfully and repeatedly — until you’ve touched the grime and smelled the squalor and cried a few tears of your own. It is enormous and sprawling and not the slightest bit subtle. But at the same time it’s hard not to admire the ambition that drives such an approach, as well as Hooper’s efforts to combine a rousing, old-fashioned musical tale with contemporary and immediate aesthetics. There’s a lot of hand-held camerawork here, a lot of rushing and swooping through the crowded, volatile slums of Victor Hugo’s 19th-century France. Two years after the release of his inspiring, crowd-pleasing “The King’s Speech,” winner of four Academy Awards including best picture, Hooper has vastly expanded his scope but also jettisoned all remnants of restraint. But he also does something clever in asking his actors to sing live on camera rather than having them record their vocals in a booth somewhere as is the norm, and for shooting the big numbers in single takes. The intimacy can be uncomfortable at times and that closeness highlights self-indulgent tendencies, but the meaning behind lyrics that have become so well-known shines through anew. Hugh Jackman, Anne Hathaway and Russell Crowe star. PG-13 for suggestive and sexual material, violence and thematic elements.
LIFE OF PI — Science and spirit, technology and transcendence may sometimes be at war, but in “Life of Pi”— Ang Lee’s spectacular take on the popular Yann Martel novel — they instead make for graceful dance partners. The story of a boy who finds his faith challenged after being stranded at sea with only wild animals for company is made stunningly real by the latest developments in computer graphics and 3-D cinematography. This is no Dr. Doolittle or Noah and his docile herds. With both the hyena and tiger hungry and aggressive, there are moments of dread, panic and terror that may be too intense for some younger viewers. Exactly what happens to Pi on his misadventure, and how it affects him, may make for lively discussion around the turkey this holiday season. But there should be no argument that Lee has made one of the year’s most impressive films. Rated: PG for emotional thematic content throughout, some scary action scenes and peril.
“LINCOLN” — Talky and intimate but also surprisingly funny, “Lincoln” focuses on the final four months of Abraham Lincoln’s life as he fought for the passage of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, abolishing slavery, and sought to unite a nation torn apart by the Civil War. This tumultuous period provides a crucible to display everything Lincoln was made of, both his folksiness and fortitude. Totally unsurprisingly, Daniel Day-Lewis inhabits the role fully. He disappears into it with small details and grand gestures, from his carriage to the cadence of his speech, and the Academy should probably just give him the best-actor Oscar now and get it over with. PG-13 for an intense scene of war violence, some images of carnage and brief strong language. 150 minutes.
MONSTERS, INC 1∕2 — “Monsters, Inc.” may have lost the best animated film Oscar to “Shrek.” But ask any parent which film is aging better, and which DVD their children wear out, and the real winner emerges. Reason enough for a prequel, “Monsters, University,” to go into production. It comes out next June. And that’s a good excuse for converting the computer-animated “Monsters, Inc.” to 3-D for a special holiday release. Whatever his other accomplishments (he’s in theaters Christmas Day with “Parental Guidance”), generations of kids know Billy Crystal only for the comic stylings of Mike Wazowski, the one-eyed working stiff (monster) he plays in “Monsters, Inc.” Anytime Disney and/ or Pixar goes astray in an animated way, they have only to look back at this, one of their best, to remember that magical recipe that works as well now as it did then. Rated G.
PARENTAL GUIDANCE — Two grandparents with an old-fashioned approach to child-rearing are called on to babysit their 21st-century grandchildren when the kids’ type-A parents go away for work. With Billy Crystal, Bette Midler, Marisa Tomei and Tom Everett Scott. Written by Lisa Addario and Joe Syracuse. Directed by Andy Fickman. PG.
RISE OF THE GUARDIANS 1∕2 — There are too many distractions in “Rise of the Guardians” to make this a holiday treat for the entire family. It’s a dark tale that is too intense for young viewers and maybe even a few older moviegoers. Rated PG for scary sequences. Running time: 1 hour, 37 minutes.
SEARCHING FOR SUGAR MAN — A surprising, inspiring documentary about Rodriguez, a forgotten singer/ songwriter who recorded a pair of great and greatly overlooked albums in the early 1970s, and who — unbeknownst to him — became a star in South Africa, the apartheid nation cut off from the rest of the world. A beautiful, revelatory film, full of songs that sound like classics. 1 hr. 25 PG-13 for profanity, adult themes.
SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK 1∕2 — From mental illness and adultery to football obsession and competitive dance, David O. Russell’s comic drama follows a wily and winding path that consistently defies expectations. He’s pulled off a tricky feat here, finding just the right tone in crafting a romantic comedy whose sweethearts suffer from bipolar disorder and depression. He never condescends to his characters; “Silver Linings Playbook” isn’t mawkish, nor is it wacky and crass in the opposite extreme. Serving as both writer and director in adapting Matthew Quick’s novel, Russell has developed affectionately fleshed-out characters in a deeply steeped sense of place: working-class Philadelphia. They feature personality quirks that vaguely recall his 2004 comedy “I (Heart) Huckabees,” but rather than seeming weird for weird’s sake, these are more complicated figures, which ultimately makes their journeys more meaningful. The Russell film this actually resembles most is probably his recent Oscar-winner “The Fighter” in terms of its realism, but with an off-kilter optimism that’s ultimately winning. Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence both give inspired performances that allow them to play against type as the unlikely couple at the center of this romance: a high-school teacher who just left a mental institution after a breakdown and a young woman recently widowed after the death of her police-officer husband. R for language and some sexual content/nudity.
SKYFALL — This 23rd entry in the enduring James Bond franchise is simultaneously thrilling and meaty, this is easily one of the best entries ever in the 50-year, 23-film series, led once again by an actor who’s the best Bond yet in Daniel Craig. PG-13 for intense violent sequences throughout, some sexuality, language and smoking. 143 minutes.
THIS IS 40 — Stupid freaking Judd Apatow, with his stupid freaking foul-mouthed and sentimental “Hobbit”-length comedies, his stupid freaking insistence on not only peopling them with his old comic cronies, but his wife and cursing kids. Happy freaking R-rated holidays, America. If “This Is 40,” one shudders to think what he’ll serve up when that AARP card arrives in the mail and he — and Mann — are faced with “This Is 50.” R for sexual content, crude humor, pervasive language and some drug material
WRECK-IT RALPH — Tired of playing the bad guy, a disgruntled video game character embarks on a journey to prove he has what it takes to be a hero. With the voices of John C. Reilly, Sarah Silverman, Jack McBrayer and Jane Lynch. Directed by Rich Moore. In 3-D. (1:33) PG.