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"Amour" -- Michael Haneke takes a subject you don't often see in movies and probably don't even want to see -- the slow, steady deterioration of an elderly woman -- and handles it with great grace. The Austrian writer-director, who's achieved a reputation for a certain mercilessness over the years through films like "Cache" and "Funny Games," displays a surprising and consistent humanity here, and draws unadorned but lovely performances from his veteran stars, Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva. Haneke focuses on the intimate moments of their changing lives as the longtime married couple remains holed up in their comfortable Paris apartment, coping day to day, waiting for eventual death. It will surely strike a chord with anyone who's watched a loved one slip away in this manner, whether it's a parent or a spouse. But Haneke's aesthetic can feel too stripped-down, too one-note in its dignified monotony. He will hold a shot, as we know, and once again he avoids the use of a score, so all that's left to focus on is the insular, dreary stillness of quiet descent. Certainly minimalism is preferable to melodrama in telling this kind of story, but Haneke takes this approach to such an extreme that it's often hard to maintain emotional engagement. PG-13 for mature thematic material including a disturbing act, and for brief language. In French with English subtitles. 125 minutes.
"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.
"The Impossible" -- Based on the true story of a family swept away by the deadly tsunami that pummeled Southeast Asia in 2004, director Juan Antonio Bayona's drama is about as subtle as a wall of water. The depiction of the natural disaster itself is visceral and horrifying -- impeccable from a production standpoint. And Naomi Watts gives a vivid, deeply committed performance as the wife and mother of three young boys who finds the strength to persevere despite desolation and debilitating injuries. But man, is this thing heavy-handed. Watts and Ewan McGregor play Maria and Henry, a happily married British couple spending Christmas at a luxury resort in Thailand with their three adorable sons. (The real-life family whose story inspired the film was Spanish; changing their ethnicity and casting famous people to play them seems like a rather transparent attempt to appeal to a larger audience.) During a quiet morning by the pool, the first massive wave comes ashore, scattering the family and thousands of strangers across the devastated landscape. "The Impossible" tracks their efforts to survive, reconnect, find medical care and get the hell out of town. The near-misses at an overcrowded hospital are just too agonizing to be true, and the uplifting score swells repeatedly in overpowering fashion to indicate how we should feel. Surely, the inherent drama of this story could have stood on its own two feet. PG-13 for intense, realistic disaster sequences, including disturbing injury images, and brief nudity. 107 minutes.
"Jack Reacher" -- 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. PG-13 for violence, language and some drug material. 130 minutes.
"Not Fade Away" -- "The Sopranos" boss David Chase's somewhat autobiographical drama about a Jersey boy in a 1960s rock band would be called a promising first feature from some unknown filmmaker doing the rounds at Sundance. Coming from a Hollywood heavyweight who's spent decades in the TV trenches, it's a hopeful sign, or maybe just wishful thinking, that more of the quality that has fled film for television might somehow be channeled back to the big screen. Chase's directing debut is a sweet, sad, smart and satisfying piece of nostalgia, at least partly inspired by his own youthful experiences as a drummer in a New Jersey band. Like "The Sopranos," much of the drama arises out of generational conflict, in this case rebellious son Douglas (John Magaro) and his pragmatic, my-way-or-the-highway dad ("Sopranos" star James Gandolfini). Infected by music of the British invasion, chiefly the Rolling Stones, Douglas and some pals form a band that few will ever hear about. From there we get not the overdone tale of a group on the rise and struggling with the pitfalls of fame and success. Instead, we get the genuine and more illuminating story of all those losers who didn't make it. Great '60s period detail gives the film authenticity. Aided by "Sopranos" co-star and E Street Band member Steven Van Zandt, Chase assembles a killer soundtrack ranging from the Stones, the Beatles and the Kinks to Bo Diddley, Robert Johnson and Elmore James. R for pervasive language, some drug use and sexual content. 112 minutes.
"On the Road" -- Walter Salles' adaptation of Jack Kerouac's famous novel was made with noble intentions, finely-crafted filmmaking and handsome casting, but, alas, it does not burn, burn, burn. This first ever big-screen adaptation of the Beat classic doesn't pulse with the electric, mad rush of Kerouac's feverish phenomenon. Salles ("The Motorcycle Diaries") approached the book with reverence and deep research, and perhaps that's the problem -- that its spirit got suffocated by respectfulness and affected acting. If anything has made "On the Road" so beloved, it's not its artful composition, but its yearning: the urgent passion of its characters to break free of themselves and post-war America. As our Dean Moriarty, Kerouac's stand-in for Neal Cassady, Garrett Hedlund ("Tron") gives his all in an ultimately failed attempt to find Moriarty's wild magnetism within him. As the center of the book and the film -- the Gatsby to our narrator Sal Paradise (Sam Riley) -- he's crucial to "On the Road" working. The women, afterthoughts in the book, have more fire. Salles has focused particularly on the carnality of Kerouac's tale, and it threatens to overtake the film. As Moriarty's first wife, Marylou, Kristen Stewart has a slinky sensuality that briefly dominates the movie. But her character is never developed beyond her sexy bohemia. In a few scenes as Moriarty's heartbroken second wife, Kirsten Dunst makes the strongest impression. Elisabeth Moss, also as one left behind, excels, shouting: "They dumped me in Tucson! In Tucson!" Viggo Mortensen, Steve Buscemi, Terrence Howard and Amy Adams all make cameos, mostly suggesting the prestige of the project. R for strong sexual content, drug use and language. 123 minutes.
"This Is 40" -- Every inch a Judd Apatow movie, from the pop culture references and potty mouths to the blunt body humor and escapist drug use. And like all of Apatow's movies, it's a good 20 minutes too long. But within that affectionately messy sprawl lies a maturation, an effort to convey something deeper, more personal and more substantive. That goes beyond the casting of his real-life wife, Leslie Mann, as half of the couple in question, and the Apatow children, Maude and Iris, as the family's daughters in this sort-of-sequel to the 2007 hit "Knocked Up." As writer and director, Apatow seems more interested in finding painful nuggets of truth than easy laughs. Much of the banter between longtime Los Angeles marrieds Pete (Paul Rudd) and Debbie (Mann) can be very funny, but frequently it's raw and painful as they have the kind of conversations about kids, finances and sex that might make many people in the audience feel an uncomfortable shiver of recognition. The film takes place during the three-week period when Pete and Debbie are both turning 40 (although Debbie likes to pretend she's still 38). Birthday parties, fights about money, school confrontations, bratty kid flare-ups and awkward attempts at reconciling with parents are among the many events that occur during this vulnerable time of transition. The strong supporting cast includes Albert Brooks, John Lithgow, Jason Segel and a surprisingly funny Megan Fox. R for sexual content, crude humor, pervasive language and some drug material. 133 minutes.
"West of Memphis" -- "The Hobbit" director Peter Jackson reveals the results of his own unexpected journey in this magnificent documentary, which chronicles how an unwavering band of filmmakers, artists and other dissenters challenged the judicial system and won. The case of the West Memphis Three -- Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley, imprisoned as teens in the 1993 murders of three Cub Scouts -- has become widely known through the activism of A-list actors and musicians who took up the cause, along with three "Paradise Lost" documentaries that called the convictions into question. After seeing that first "Paradise Lost" film in 2005, Jackson and wife Fran Walsh stepped in, financing their own investigation and enlisting director Amy Berg (the Academy Award-nominated "Deliver Us from Evil") to chronicle the convoluted case and the new findings that were uncovered. This is nonfiction filmmaking at its best, a film with a fierce point of view yet one that doesn't pretend to have all the answers or a monopoly on truth. It tells a great story, one that surprises, appalls, riles and gratifies, even as it leaves at least as many questions as it resolves. The film has a triumphant conclusion -- freedom for Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley after 18 years in prison. But the ending vexes even as it satisfies. The abiding image is that of the other West Memphis Three, little boys who died horribly, for whom justice has not been served. R for disturbing violent content and some language. 147 minutes.