“Django Unchained” 2 stars
Rated R for strong graphic violence throughout, a vicious fight, language and some nudity, 2 hours, 35 minutes
STARRING: Jamie Foxx, Christoph Walz, Leonardo DiCaprio
PLOT: With the help of his mentor, a slave-turned-bounty hunter sets out to rescue his wife from a brutal Mississippi plantation owner.
VERDICT: 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 (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. – David Germain, The Associated Press
“The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” 3 stars
PG-13 for frightening images and extended sequences of intense fantasy action and violence, 2 hours, 49 minutes
STARRING: Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, Richard Armitage, Andy Serkis
PLOT: The hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Freeman) joins Gandalf the wizard (McKellen) and a company of 13 dwarves in a quest to reclaim the dwarves’ homeland from an invading dragon. They encounter monstrous obstacles in the first leg of their journey.
VERDICT: From the opening frames we are back in Peter Jackson’s Middle Earth, and it’s a comfortable place to be. So comfortable, it is easy to overlook many of the film’s flaws. The idea that Jackson would turn J.R.R. Tolkien’s slim children’s novel into a three-film epic is nuts, but the first of these films is entertaining enough, even when the padding shows in a narrative nearly three hours long. Bilbo’s encounter with Gollum (Andy Serkis) is a showstopper. Avoid seeing the 3-D version shown at 48 frames per second, because it makes an expensive movie look as cheap as a 1970s BBC production. – Jeffrey Westhoff, Northwest Herald
“Jack Reacher” 3 stars
Rated PG-13 for violence, language and some drug material, 2 hours, 10 minutes
STARRING: Tom Cruise, Rosamund Pike, Richard Jenkins, Robert Duvall
PLOT: A homicide investigator digs deeper into a case involving a trained military sniper who shot five random victims.
VERDICT: The idea of watching a movie in which a sniper methodically manufactures his own bullets, practices weekly at a gun range, then waits quietly in an empty parking garage before shooting five people dead may not sound like the most appealing form of entertainment during these tragic days. Nevertheless, it’s important to assess “Jack Reacher” on its own terms, for what it is and what it isn’t. Besides being caught in some unfortunate timing, it’s also clever, well-crafted and darkly humorous, and it features one of those effortless bad-ass performances from Tom Cruise that remind us that he is indeed a movie star, first and foremost. OK, so maybe Cruise doesn’t exactly resemble the Reacher of British novelist Lee Child’s books: a 6-foot-5, 250-pound, blond behemoth. If you haven’t read them, you probably won’t care. Even if you have read them, Christopher McQuarrie’s film – the first he’s directed and written since 2000’s “The Way of the Gun” – moves so fluidly and with such confidence, it’ll suck you in from the start. Jack Reacher is a former military investigator who’s become a bit of a mythic figure since he’s gone off the grid. When the deadly shooting occurs at the film’s start, authorities believe they’ve quickly found their man: a sniper who’s ex-Army himself. He reveals nothing during his interrogation but manages to scribble the words “Get Jack Reacher” on a notepad before winding up in a coma. But when Reacher arrives and reluctantly agrees to help the defense attorney (Rosamund Pike) investigate, he finds the case isn’t nearly as simple as it seems. – Christy Lemire, The Associated Press
“Killing Them Softly” 2 stars
Rated R for violence, sexual references, pervasive language and some drug use, 1 hour, 37 minutes
STARRING: Brad Pitt, Richard Jenkins, Ray Liotta, James Gandolfini
PLOT: After two dimwitted hoods rob a mob-sanctioned poker game, an out-of-town enforcer (Pitt) is called in to hunt them down and restore the local underworld economy.
VERDICT: Writer-director Andrew Dominik (“The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford”) begins with the Quentin Tarantino template of talkative, philosophical hit men and tries to expand it into a parable about America’s economic meltdown in the fall of 2008. The metaphors are too obvious (the poker game represents Wall Street), and frequent cutaways to speeches from then-President George W. Bush and then-candidate Barack Obama push the political cynicism too hard. Pitt leads a strong cast, but if all the scenes of self-pitying dialogue were eliminated, the movie would be 30 minutes long. – Jeffrey Westhoff, Northwest Herald
“Les Misérables” 2½ stars
Rated PG-13 for suggestive and sexual material, violence and thematic elements, 2 hours, 37 minutes
STARRING: Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway, Amanda Seyfreid
PLOT: Years after ex-prisoner Jean Valjean (Jackman) breaks his parole to become a virtuous man, fanatical policeman Javert (Crowe) continues to hunt him. While avoiding Javert, Valjean helps a dying prostitute (Hathaway) and, years later, her daughter (Seyfried).
VERDICT: Director Tom Hooper’s interpretation of the blockbuster stage show is a musical in close-up. With his actors singing their roles “live,” Hooper can push his camera’s right into their faces. This is riveting for the first hour, then becomes repetitive. Jackman, Crowe and Hathaway are electrifying. This film was made for fans of the stage show. Others who don’t know the story going in will be lucky if they know it going out. – Jeffrey Westhoff, Northwest Herald
“Life of Pi” 3½ stars
Rated PG for emotional thematic content throughout, and some scary action sequences and peril, 2 hours, 6 minutes
STARRING: Suraj Sharma, Irrfan Khan, Adil Hussain and Tabu
PLOT: A young man who survives a disaster at sea is hurtled into an epic journey of adventure and discovery. While cast away, he forms an unexpected connection with another survivor ... a fearsome Bengal tiger.
VERDICT: If you’re going to see “Life of Pi,” you must see it in 3-D. If you saw “Avatar” or “Hugo” in 2-D, you saw flatter versions of those movies. But if you see “Life of Pi” in 2-D, you will not be seeing “Life of Pi.” It would be like a comic book with words but no pictures. Ang Lee, in his best work since “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” makes 3-D integral to the storytelling in this miracle of a film. Lee employs fanciful imagery in the run-up to the ocean voyage, but “Life of Pi” comes to glorious life when the story shifts away from India. The shipwreck sequence, which lasts about 10 minutes, is more wrenching than the whole of James Cameron’s “Titanic.” Lee’s imagination never ceases to seize upon new ways to depict the sea. This portion of the film becomes a museum gallery unto itself, with a series of paintings representing new aspects of the sea – its calm, its beauty, its ferocity, but above all, its limitlessness. Lee’s use of 3-D photography enhances his portrait of the sea. It extends toward us as well as away from us. We see it from above the surface as well as from below. We look toward the nothingness on the horizon and feel Pi’s isolation. But after weaving a spell that leaves the audience awestruck for two hours, Lee and screenwriter David Magee (“Finding Neverland”) do about the worst thing they could possibly do to “Life of Pi.” They assault their ephemeral construct with a jackhammer of literalness when that dad-blasted writer spells out the story’s symbolism. This final scene doesn’t ruin “Life of Pi,” but it is a curious and terrible way to finish an outstanding film. It’s like watching an exquisite performance of “Swan Lake” end with a belly flop into the orchestra pit. – Jeffrey Westhoff, Northwest Herald
“Lincoln” 3 stars
Rated PG-13 for an intense scene of war violence, some images of carnage and brief strong language, 2 hours, 30 minutes
STARRING: Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, David Strathairn, Joseph Gordon-Levitt
PLOT: As the Civil War continues to rage, America’s president struggles with continuing carnage on the battlefield as he fights with many inside his own Cabinet on the decision to emancipate the slaves.
VERDICT: For anyone who cringed just a little while watching the trailer for “Lincoln” and worried it might be a near-parody of a Steven Spielberg film, with its heartfelt proclamations, sentimental tones and inspiring John Williams score, fret not. The movie itself is actually a lot more reserved than that – more a wonky, nuts-and-bolts lesson about the way political machinery operates than a sweeping historical epic that tries to encapsulate the entirety of the revered 16th president’s life. That was a smart move on the part of Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner, a Pulitzer prize-winner for the play “Angels in America” who also wrote the script for Spielberg’s “Munich.” It’s talky and intimate but also surprisingly funny. – Christy Lemire, The Associated Press
“Playing for Keeps” 1 star
PG-13 for some sexual situations, language and a brief intense image, 1 hour, 46 minutes
STARRING: Gerard Butler, Jessica Biel, Dennis Quaid, Catherine Zeta-Jones
PLOT: When a down-on-his luck former pro soccer star (Butler) agrees to coach his son’s youth team, the several randy moms on the bleachers (including Zeta-Jones and Uma Thurman) decide to make a play for him. This could ruin his chances of reconciling with his ex-wife (Biel).
VERDICT: This comedy stinks of the 1990s, when stories about immature dads were in vogue and when Robbie Fox’s script was probably written. Director Gabriele Muccio attempts to combine that sort of heartwarming muck with a sex comedy awfully reminiscent of Warren Beatty’s “Shampoo.” Even if the two halves of the script weren’t incompatible, the overall soul-sucking phoniness is enough to ruin this awful excuse for a romantic comedy. Biel’s performance is the only genuine element in a wasteland of artificiality. – Jeffrey Westhoff, Northwest Herald
“Red Dawn” 1 star
Rated PG-13 for sequences of intense war violence and action, and for language, 1 hour, 33 minutes
STARRING: Chris Hemsworth, Isabel Lucas, Josh Hutcherson
PLOT: A group of teenagers look to save their town from an invasion of North Korean soldiers.
VERDICT: The army invading the United States in “Red Dawn,” an ill-advised remake of the campy 1984 original, was changed in post-production from Chinese to North Korean. With a few snips here, a few redubs there, the filmmakers re-edited and reshot, fearful of offending China and its increasingly important movie-going market. The ridiculous “Red Dawn” is the supreme example of Hollywood’s Cold War nostalgia, when the Russkies offered up an easy, de facto villain. Today’s terrorism paranoia, apparently, is too complex and too faceless for some. Director Dan Bradley, a former stunt coordinator, can mount a decent shoot-out scene, but doesn’t stage the action well, leaving scenes looking set in the same few downtown blocks. Still, there’s no telling how Bradley had to alter his footage. (No one had it harder than actor Will Yun Lee, who, as the occupying commander, had to redo his lines in Korean.) In recent years, home invasion movies have been made frequently, only with aliens. The appeal, as one of the characters in “Red Dawn” says, is that defending one’s homeland makes “more sense” in a time filled with indirect military aims. But such fantasies – here played out by delusional teenage football players – are all the more dubious given that the U.S. was engaged in two (real) wars at the time of filming. In “Red Dawn,” Afghanistan and Iraq go hardly mentioned, replaced by a game of toy soldiers with make-believe foes. – Jake Coyle, The Associated Press
“The Rise of the Guardians” 2½ stars
Rated PG for thematic elements and some mildly scary action, 1 hour, 37 minutes.
STARRING: Voices of Hugh Jackman, Alec Baldwin and Isla Fisher
PLOT: When the evil spirit Pitch launches an assault on Earth, the Immortal Guardians team up to protect the innocence of children all around the world.
VERDICT: A very odd assortment of mythical childhood figures, some of them afflicted with severe emotional insecurities and inferiority complexes, are thrown together as an unlikely set of action heroes in “The Rise of the Guardians,” an attractively designed but overly busy and derivative mishmash of kid-friendly elements. Based on the book series “Guardians of Childhood” by William Joyce, as well as on the author’s short film “The Man in the Moon,” the script by David Lindsay-Abaire (Robots, Rabbit Hole) plays fast and loose with these legendary fixtures of childhood, attaching to them all sorts of neuroses, feelings of inadequacy and the sense, or threat, of being ignored. Some might find this tack delightfully mischievous, but it’s just as easy to reject as ridiculous. – Todd McCarthy, The Hollywood Reporter
“Silver Linings Playbook” 3½ stars
Rated R for language and some sexual content/nudity, 2 hours, 2 minutes
STARRING: Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Robert De Niro, Jacki Weaver
PLOT: After a stint in a mental institution, former teacher Pat Solitano moves back in with his parents and tries to reconcile with his ex-wife. Things get more challenging when Pat meets Tiffany, a mysterious girl with problems of her own.
VERDICT: From mental illness and adultery to football obsession and competitive dance, “Silver Linings Playbook” follows a wily and winding path that consistently defies expectations. Director David O. Russell has pulled off a tricky feat here, finding just the right tone in crafting a romantic comedy whose sweethearts suffer from bipolar disorder and depression. On paper alone, it sounds cringe-inducing. But he never condescends to his characters; “Silver Linings Playbook” isn’t mawkish, nor is it wacky and crass in the opposite extreme. Russell has developed affectionately fleshed-out characters in a deeply steeped sense of place: working-class Philadelphia. Cooper and Lawrence both give inspired performances that allow them to play against type as the unlikely couple at the center of this romance, and Robert De Niro does some of the best work in recent years. – Christy Lemire, The Associated Press
“Skyfall” 3½ stars
Rated PG-13 for intense violent sequences throughout, some sexuality, language and smoking, 2 hours, 23 minutes
STARRING: Daniel Craig, Javier Bardem, Judi Dench, Ralph Fiennes
PLOT: When a mysterious villain (Bardem) with a vendetta against M (Dench) declares war on MI6, James Bond (Craig) remains loyal to his boss even as British politicians led by Fiennes call for her resignation.
VERDICT: Oscar-winning director Sam Mendes (“American Beauty”) has been a James Bond fan since boyhood, and his love for the character shines through in the series’ 50th anniversary entry. Much of it is brilliant, but like many of Mendes’ films, it is vexingly uneven. Craig remains the rock-solid center in a story that delves deeper into Bond’s psyche than before. With Dench occupying much of this story, Bond has no time for a worthy leading lady, which marks two movies in a row where action has trumped sex. Bardem is a scary villain, but his performance could have used more restraint. At least Q is finally back, now played by waspish Ben Whishaw. Adele’s theme song is the best since Sheena Easton warbled “For Your Eyes Only.” Craig’s third outing as Bond is miles better than “Quantum of Solace,” but it’s no “Casino Royale.” – Jeffrey Westhoff, Northwest Herald
“This is 40” 2 stars
Rated R for sexual content, crude humor, pervasive language and some drug material, 2 hours, 13 minutes
STARRING: Paul Rudd, Leslie Mann, Albert Brooks, Megan Fox
PLOT: Rudd and Mann, reprising the supporting characters they played in “Knocked Up,” face new challenges to their marriage as they turn 40.
VERDICT: Writer-director Judd Apatow invented a style of affably vulgar comedy that has served him and a company of fellow actors and filmmakers well for nearly eight years. This time, Apatow’s worst instincts overpower his best. The frequently crude dialogue is no longer grounded in a sense of goofiness, and main characters are no longer likeable. Rudd is not given as much screen time as Mann, who is Apatow’s wife. Even Apatow’s good films are too long, but this one seriously lacks the discipline to edit. The occasional good scenes are separated by acres of pointless sequences and subplots. – Jeffrey Westhoff, Northwest Herald
“The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 2” 3 stars
Rated PG-13 for sequences of violence including disturbing images, some sensuality and partial nudity, 1 hour, 55 minutes
STARRING: Kristen Stewart, Robert Pattinson, Taylor Lautner
PLOT: After the birth of Renesmee, the Cullens gather other vampire clans in order to protect the child from a false allegation that puts the family in front of the Volturi.
VERDICT: Finally – finally! – the “Twilight” franchise embraces its own innate absurdity with the gleefully over-the-top conclusion. 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. Director Bill Condon (who also directed last year’s “Breaking Dawn – Part 1”) finally lets his freak flag fly. His final “Twilight” movie dares to have a little fun – it actually makes you laugh intentionally for once, teetering on self-parody as it does. – Christy Lemire, The Associated Press
“Wreck-It Ralph” 3 stars
Rated PG for some rude humor and mild action and violence, 1 hour, 48 minutes
STARRING: Voices of John C. Reilly, Sarah Silverman, Jack McBrayer, Jane Lynch
PLOT: Wreck It-Ralph (Reilly), the villain of a 1980s arcade game, decides to become a hero, so he tries his luck in other video games.
VERDICT: This kiddie version of “Tron” is the giddiest cartoon comedy in years. The more you know about video game history, the harder you will laugh. The richly funny script is filled with gaming in-jokes, but it is also surprisingly sweet once Ralph befriends Silverman’s character, a young girl prohibited from taking the wheel in a candy-themed racing game. The “backstage” world of video game characters is cleverly imagined, and many familiar digital faces appear. A ton of fun and worth every quarter. – Jeffrey Westhoff, Northwest Herald