This film image released by FilmDistrict shows Gerard Butler in a scene from "Playing for Keeps." (AP Photo/FilmDistrict, Dale Robinette)
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.
“ARGO” — A movie about the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis probably doesn’t sound like it would be a laugh riot — or should be — but that’s just one of the many ways in which this is a glorious, gripping surprise. Directing his third feature, Ben Affleck has come up with a seamless blend of detailed international drama and breathtaking suspense, with just the right amount of dry humor to provide context and levity. R for language and some violent images. 120 minutes.
“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.
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
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.
“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.
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. The result is that a book that many might have considered best kept on the printed page comes rapturously alive on screen. Lee, along with scriptwriter David Magee (“Finding Neverland”) and cinematographer Claudio Miranda (“The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” “TRON: Legacy”) manage to keep the fantastic credible. 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. At this point, you stop wondering what’s real and what’s CGI and start ducking. Yet there is beauty amid the isolation as well. When schools of fluorescent fish light up the sea underneath a weary Pi, it’s a wondrous splash of visual splendor in a movie filled with them. 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.
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.
PLAYING FOR KEEPS (0 stars) — This is supposed to be the time of year when high-quality movies come out, whether they’re potential Oscar contenders or crowd-pleasing family fare. So the presence of this flat, hacky, unfunny dreck — the kind of film that ordinarily tries to fly under the radar in January or February but would be torture to sit through in any month — is a total mystery. It is truly baffling that all these talented, acclaimed people actually read this script and then agreed to devote their time to this movie, especially given its uncomfortably flagrant misogynistic streak. PG-13 for some sexual situations, language and a brief intense image.
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.
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. So many of the elements you want to see in a Bond film exist here: the car, the tuxedo, the martini, the exotic locations filled with gorgeous women. Adele’s smoky, smoldering theme song over the titles harkens to the classic 007 tales of the 1960s, even as the film’s central threat of cyberterrorism, perpetrated by an elusive figure who’s seemingly everywhere and can’t be pinned down, couldn’t be more relevant. PG-13 for intense violent sequences throughout, some sexuality, language and smoking. 143 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.
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
THE TWILIGHT SAGA: BREAKING DAWN — PART 2 — This is by far the best film in the series. This does not necessarily mean it’s good. But as it reaches its prolonged and wildly violent crescendo, it’s at least entertaining in a totally nutso way. PG-13 for sequences of violence including disturbing images, some sensuality and partial nudity. 115 minutes.
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.