4-star Film Capsules --Week of January 17

Associated PRess Published:

"Broken City" -- It should come as no surprise that every character in a movie with a title like this is either rotten to the core, or a liar, or a schemer, or the bearer of seriously damaging secrets. What is surprising is that these characters never feel like real people, despite a series of twists that should, in theory, reveal hidden, unexpected facets of their personalities and despite being played by big-name stars including Mark Wahlberg, Russell Crowe and Catherine Zeta-Jones. They're all still conniving, only with varying alliances and targets. At the center of these dizzying double crosses is Wahlberg as Billy Taggart, a former New York police detective who got kicked off the force after a questionable shooting. Seven years later, Billy is barely getting by as a Brooklyn private eye. Then one day, the mayor (Crowe), who'd always been on Billy's side, hires Billy to investigate whether his wife (Zeta-Jones) is having an affair. He's up for re-election in a week and doesn't want to lose to a young, well-financed challenger (Barry Pepper) over revelations that he's being cuckolded. But Billy's digging leads to further revelations involving the mayor's rival, the rival's campaign manager (Kyle Chandler), the police commissioner (Jeffrey Wright) and some wealthy, well-connected land developers. Everything is simultaneously too complicated and overly spelled out. Director Allen Hughes' film is a forgettable piece of pulp. R for pervasive language, some violence and sexual content. 108 minutes.

H-1/2 stars.

"The Last Stand" -- The Arnold Schwarzenegger movie you didn't even realize you wanted to see. This is the action superstar's first leading role in a decade, having left acting to serve as the governor of California and whatnot, and while it may not have occurred to you to miss him during that time, it's still surprisingly good to see him on the big screen again. He is not exactly pushing himself here. Korean director Kim Jee-woon's American filmmaking debut turns out to be an extremely Schwarzeneggerish Schwarzenegger film, full of big, violent set pieces and broad comedy. He may look a little creaky (and facially freaky) these days, but Arnold proves he's still game for the mayhem as he fires off rounds and tosses off one-liners, and the movie at least has the decency to acknowledge that it knows that you know that he's old. The script also feels a bit old -- "The Last Stand" is essentially an amped-up version of "Rio Bravo," with some "Jackass"-style hijinks courtesy of Johnny Knoxville himself. A Mexican drug kingpin (Eduardo Noriega) daringly escapes federal custody and heads for a quiet Arizona border town where Schwarzenegger, as the sheriff, rounds up a posse of misfits to stop him. But Kim keeps things moving briskly and the members of the strong supporting cast (Peter Stormare, Luis Guzman, Forest Whitaker) don't seem to mind that they're playing flimsy types. Everyone's just here for a mindless good time. R for strong, bloody violence throughout and language. 107 minutes.

HHH-stars.

"Gangster Squad" -- This pulpy, violent tale of cops and mobsters in 1949 Los Angeles rides an uncomfortable line between outlandishness and outright parody, and it's difficult to tell which is director Ruben Fleischer's intention. Which is a problem. While the film wallows in period detail and has some sporadic moments of amusing banter, it's mostly flashy, empty and cacophonous, and it woefully wastes a strong cast led by Josh Brolin, Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone in barely developed, one-note roles. At its center is a performance from Sean Penn as mob king Mickey Cohen in which he doesn't just chew up the scenery, he rolls it around in his mouth like a handful of marbles, then spits it back out again and blows it to bits with a Tommy gun for good measure. With his mashed-up boxer's mug, thick Brooklyn accent and volatile bursts of anger, he's as cartoony as a Dick Tracy villain. While "Gangster Squad" certainly has its intended moments of humor, the laughs Penn's performance prompts might not have been part of the plan. R for strong violence and language. 113 minutes.

H-1/2 stars.

"Promised Land" -- An experience that's alternately amusing and frustrating, full of impassioned earnestness and saggy sections. Director Gus Van Sant has the challenge of taking the topic of fracking and trying to make it cinematic. Working from a script by co-stars Matt Damon and John Krasinski, based on a story by Dave Eggers, he succeeds in fits and starts. The impoverished small town that's the tale's setting, a place in need of the kind of economic rejuvenation fracking could provide, is full of folksy folks whose interactions with the main characters don't always ring true. "Promised Land" has its heart is on its sleeve and makes its pro-environment message quite clear, but it's in the looser and more ambiguous places that the film actually works. Damon stars as Steve Butler, a salesman traveling the country on behalf of a bland behemoth of an energy corporation. Having grown up on an Iowa farm himself and seeing how an economic downturn can devastate a small town, Butler seems to be a true believer in what he's selling. But he's also a pragmatist, as evidenced by the playfully cynical give-and-take he enjoys with his partner, Sue (a sharp Frances McDormand). R for language. 106 minutes.

HH-stars.

"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.

HH-stars.

"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. PG-13 for intense, realistic disaster sequences, including disturbing injury images, and brief nudity. 107 minutes.

HH-stars.

"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. PG-13 for violence, language and some drug material. 130 minutes.

HHH-stars.

"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.

HHH-stars.

"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.

HH-stars.

"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.

HHH-stars.

"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.

HHH-1/2 stars.

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