(Palo Alto Square, Century 20) The Ben Affleck of old has been shed like a husk, and what remains is a sharp and thoughtful filmmaker who is still in the embryonic phase of an impressive career. Sure, Affleck the actor is also along for the ride, but his skill behind the camera is what shines. After the assault on the U.S. Embassy in Tehran on Nov. 4, 1979, 52 Americans are taken hostage as Iranian revolutionaries storm the embassy, but six manage to escape amidst the turmoil and hide out in the home of Canadian Ambassador Ken Taylor (Victor Garber). Back in the U.S., CIA operative Jack O'Donnell (Bryan Cranston) tasks "exfiltration specialist" Tony Mendez (Affleck) with hatching a plan to get the six Americans safely out before their true identities and whereabouts are discovered: Mendez conceives of a faux movie production that would make the six part of his filmmaking team. "Argo" is a nail-biter from beginning to end, and one of the year's best films. Affleck and his crew do a phenomenal job capturing the time period and casting actors who both look like their real-life counterparts and have the thespian chops to hit all the right notes. Rated R for language and violent images. Two hours. — T.H. (Reviewed Oct. 12, 2012)
Identity Thief 1/2
(Century 16, Century 20) Known for stealing scenes, Melissa McCarthy adds to her jacket by taking on the title role of "Identity Thief." Seth Gordon's action-comedy follow-up to "Horrible Bosses" proves far from perfect but difficult to resist, thanks to McCarthy and co-lead Jason Bateman. Bateman plays Sandy Bigelow Patterson, a Colorado accountant and family man whose life turns upside down when McCarthy's identity thief goes to town on his credit and gets a warrant issued for his arrest. The confusion threatens Sandy's brand-new position as the vice president of a start-up financial institution. That means flying down to Florida, apprehending Diana and hauling her back to face the music. And so what begins as a fruitful comic premise about identity theft turns out to be two parts "Planes, Trains, and Automobiles" and one part "Midnight Run." An expert in both verbal and physical comedy, McCarthy is a worthy successor to John Candy, who also had a gift for warming up caricatures with loveable humanity. Despite some tangles, there's something appealing in how the film amounts to the opposite of a revenge narrative, considering the roots of Diana's waywardness and extending her chances to earn her redemption. Sure, making Diana cuddly after all is a Hollywood convention, but it also scores one for restorative justice. Rated R for sexual content and language. One hour, 52 minutes. — P.C. (Reviewed Feb. 8, 2013)
(Century 16) One has to admire the ambition of this through-sung play that's now a big-screen musical. A condensation of Victor Hugo's 1862 epic novel, the musical by composer Claude-Michel Schonberg and lyricists Alain Boublil and Jean-Marc Natel achieved enormous popular appeal with its soaring melodies and grasping melodrama. But it's equally true that "Les Miserables" has never been known for its subtlety, with its storytelling in all-caps and its music thunderously repetitive. None of this changes, exactly, in the film adaptation helmed by Tom Hooper, Oscar-winning director of "The King's Speech." And like so many movie musicals, this one's a mixed bag of suitable and not-so-suitable choices. On balance, though, it's about as compelling a screen version of "Les Mis" as we have any right to expect. Hugh Jackman stars as Jean Valjean, a parole violator in 19th-century France who lifts himself out of poverty and decrepitude but lives in fear of discovery by his former jailer, Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe). From his new position of power as a factory owner, Valjean becomes entangled in the fortunes of one of his workers, despairing single mother Fantine (Anne Hathaway), and he begins to feel responsible for the woman and her child, Cosette (Isabelle Allen). Jackman is perhaps the only sensible choice to headline the picture, and though he's able enough, his performance typically feels calculated. The same could be said for Hathaway, who's given an Oscar-savvy showcase in her single-take performance of the uber-emotive aria "I Dreamed a Dream." Rated PG-13 for suggestive and sexual material, violence and thematic elements. Two hours, 37 minutes. — P.C. (Reviewed Dec. 28, 2012)
Life of Pi 1/2
(Century 20) In Ang Lee's exhilarating "Life of Pi" — based upon the bestselling novel by Yann Martel — a boy adrift reads a "Survival at Sea" manual. "Telling stories is highly recommended," it says. "Above all, do not lose hope." In the hands of Ang Lee, "Life of Pi" elegantly walks Martel's philosophical line while also brilliantly using every modern cinematic tool to tell an epic yarn. Most prominent among these tools is 3D. Lee joins the ranks of auteurs using new 3D cameras, gainfully employing the technology for its full ViewMaster "pop" effect, but also in more magical ways. Suraj Sharma plays the teenage Piscine Molitor (aka "Pi"), who, having been raised in South India, winds up in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, warily sharing a lifeboat with a zebra, an orangutan and a Bengal tiger. As a boy, Pi (Ayush Tandon) becomes something of a "Catholic Hindu," who sees the gods of various religions as his "superheroes." Pi's spiritual picaresque shifts into a high gear once he's fighting for survival on the "life"boat. Pi's attempts to reach detente with the tiger create a fearful intimacy analogous to some people's experience of God. "I have to believe there was more in his eyes than my own reflection staring back at me," Pi says, but the film's visual motifs of mirrored surfaces might just as well suggest that people under sufficient emotional duress see what they want to see. Rated PG for emotional thematic content throughout, and some scary action sequences and peril. Two hours, seven minutes. — P.C. (Reviewed Nov. 23, 2012)
(Century 16, Century 20) Spielberg's "Lincoln" — which focuses on Lincoln's tragically shortened second term in office, the conclusion of the Civil War and the president's fight to pass the 13th Amendment (abolishing slavery) — plays a bit like a $50 million history lesson. And while that's a boon for history buffs, the pacing suffers sporadically. Still, Spielberg and his team (including an A-list cast that features a spotlight-stealing performance by Tommy Lee Jones) deserve a wealth of credit for embracing a monumental task and succeeding. The film follows Lincoln (Day-Lewis) as he seeks to outlaw slavery and, thus, end the bloody Civil War. Lincoln juggles nation-changing decisions with personal-life issues: his wife Mary's (Sally Field) migraines, his older son Robert's (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) military ambitions and his young son Tad's (Gulliver McGrath) upbringing. Day-Lewis captures Lincoln as well as any actor could. From his vocal inflections to his mannerisms, it's clear he truly immersed himself in the difficult role. But it's Jones' performance that lends the film the spark it needed and would not have otherwise had. Rated PG-13 for war violence, strong language and carnage. Two hours, 29 minutes. — T.H. (Reviewed Nov. 16, 2012)
(Guild) In telling its tale of four retired musicians, "Quartet" doesn't avoid all of the traps of the cutesy and sometimes condescending old-age-pensioner movie genre, but Director Dustin Hoffman does show good taste, particularly in casting. The setting is Beecham House, a home for retired musicians. It's a rambling estate with amenities and lush greenery, which warmly embraces its residents — all of whom daily practice their vocation. Still, there is trouble in paradise. The residents fret about the home's dwindling funds and the necessity of a boffo success for the home's annual benefit. This concern coincides with the arrival of a new resident who throws everyone into a tizzy: bona fide opera diva Jean Horton. Hoffman adds to already sturdy material a few smart touches, such as a well-timed classical montage for the title sequence and a subtle refusal to follow through on genre cliches. One genre expectation remains firmly in place. The senior-citizen movie remains a showcase for elder talent, which Hoffman maximizes not only with stars but also with supporting players who, once upon a time, made theatrical, operatic and musical history. "Quartet" is no classic, but with the talent involved, it's certainly catchy. Rated PG-13 for brief strong language and suggestive humor. One hour, 39 minutes. — P.C. (Reviewed Jan. 25, 2013)
Safe Haven 1/2
(Century 16, Century 20) Movies based on Nicholas Sparks books are like the "natural flavors" synthesized in a laboratory to trick your taste buds. The romantic-drama results remain pretty much the same: a date movie that's likely to induce friskiness in couples. With "Safe Haven," producer Sparks risks killing the mood by introducing "thriller" elements. There's a Pretty Young Thing (Julianne Hough) who travels to a picturesque seaside idyll. There she walks right into a job and housing, meets another Pretty Young Thing (Josh Duhamel), resists romance, succumbs to romance, then almost loses romance due to the emergence of a Dark Secret. Duhamel can and does nominally act here, but Hough can't be bothered to do anything other than flash toothy smiles and crinkle her dimples just so. Given the soulless-cash-grab material, who can blame her? Rated PG-13 for thematic material involving threatening behavior, and for violence and sexuality. One hour, 55 minutes. — P.C. (Reviewed Feb. 15, 2013)
(Century 16, Century 20) Steven Soderbergh toys with drugs, duplicity and their side effects. The message movie grows tiresome in its indictment of Big Pharma's hold on pharmaceutical research and sales, the efficacy and effectiveness of particular drugs, and the medical community's questionable ethics. Then moments before inducing sleep, the social-issue film twists into a noir thriller. Although everyone seems quick to give directors the dubious title of "auteur" and all the credit, the film's distinctive signature belongs to screenwriter Scott Z. Burns as much as to Soderbergh. Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara) prepares for her husband's (Channing Tatum) release from prison after serving four years for insider trading. They have lost everything of the upscale lifestyle that Emily had loved. Psychiatrist Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law) has a pill to stop her brain from sending out so many "sad" signals. Things go terribly wrong. The victim, the investigator, the femme fatale and the psychopath are central figures in noir's twitchy nervous system. The fun is figuring out which character corresponds to which descriptor. Wearing poker faces, the actors never show their cards. "Side Effects" portrays contemporary society as ruthlessly competitive, greedy and devoid of meaningful values. But as the plot unknots, the film itself feels empty — an exercise in narrative gymnastics and a misogynist throwback to 1950s noir.
Rated R for sexuality, nudity, violence and language. 1 hour, 45 minutes. — S.T. (Reviewed Feb. 8, 2013)
Zero Dark Thirty 1/2
(Century 16, Century 20) By most cinematic measures, "Zero Dark Thirty" is one of the best-made films of 2012. It also probably shouldn't exist. An encore presentation by the team of director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal — who collected Oscars for 2008's "The Hurt Locker" — the film recounts the CIA's hunt for Osama bin Laden. By following a fiercely determined CIA officer (Jessica Chastain's Maya), "Zero Dark Thirty" creates an identification with her agony of defeat and thrill of victory along the way, building a rooting interest while otherwise eschewing character development in favor of detail-oriented procedural. While Boal's screenplay is based on journalistic research, one might well say, "Consider the sources." And the calendar. It's fair to suggest that the Hollywood treatment of such politically delicate history comes "too soon," and lacks the historical perspective that comes with time. Instead of dealing with the inherently political dimensions of their narrative, the filmmakers have disingenuously insisted upon the film's apoliticism in its embrace of procedural narrative. Rated R for language and strong violence including brutal images. Two hours, 37 minutes. — P.C. (Reviewed Jan. 4, 2013)
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