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Capsule reviews of films playing the week of Jan. 25 

THE ADVENTURES OF TINTIN Finally, here's one seven-year itch that can be scratched. When 2004's The Polar Express made film history as the first animated movie to be created wholly by employing the motion-capture process, we instantly recognized that we were in the presence of something ghastly. Awkward and unsightly, the ersatz innovation rendered all characters stiff, clammy and lifeless — anything but animated. Even as recent as two years ago, with the release of the Jim Carrey vehicle A Christmas Carol, it was clear that the format had not yet hit its stride. But thanks to director Steven Spielberg, producer Peter Jackson and their crack team of technicians and artists, The Adventures of Tintin emerges as the first motion-capture movie to fully fulfill the promise of this hyped advent in animation. Based on the internationally beloved comic series created by Belgian writer-illustrator Hergé (I myself enjoyed them as a lad, even though French writer René Goscinny's Asterix was my main Euro-fix), this finds squeaky-clean boy reporter Tintin (voiced by Jamie Bell), accompanied by his clever canine companion Snowy, acquiring a model ship that in turn is being sought by the villainous Sakharine (Daniel Craig). Tintin's curiosity eventually lands him on a real seafaring vessel that belongs to the drunken Captain Haddock (Andy Serkis), and together, they set out to distant lands to locate hidden treasure. While the stop-motion process still isn't as pleasing to the eye as either old-school Disney or new-school Pixar, its employment in The Adventures of Tintin still qualifies as leaps and bounds ahead of its use in the unwieldy antecedents in this field. What's more, with the overseer of the Indiana Jones franchise at the controls, this cartoon cliffhanger manages to consistently serve up the breathless thrills. Even the 3-D, hardly ever worth the effort (or higher admission price), works for the greater good of the picture, at one with Spielberg's kinetic and imaginatively designed set-pieces. ***

THE ARTIST Although its cribbing from Singin' in the Rain, A Star Is Born and more means that this black-and-white silent picture sometimes runs short on invention, it easily makes up for it in style, execution and a cheery disposition that's positively infectious. Jean Dujardin plays silent screen star George Valentin, whose chance encounter with a young fan named Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo) contributes to her eventual rise in the industry. The pair clearly harbor feelings for each other, but George finds himself trapped in a loveless marriage (Penelope Ann Miller sympathetically plays his estranged spouse) and relies on his dog Uggie and his faithful chauffeur Clifton (James Cromwell) for companionship. The matrimonial strife soon takes a back seat to a dark development, revealed when studio head Al Zimmer (John Goodman) informs him about the inevitable advent of sound in motion pictures — a revolution that George myopically dismisses as a short-lived fad. Instead, this cinematic breakthrough all but destroys his livelihood. In crafting his homage to the silent era, writer-director Michael Hazanavicius crucially fails to include one of its key ingredients, that go-for-broke dynamism that informed much of the cinema of the time — think, for example, of that house really falling on top of Buster Keaton in 1928's Steamboat Bill Jr., or Harold Lloyd's eye-popping stunts in 1923's Safety Last! and other gems, or just about anything served up by Chaplin. Nothing in The Artist can quite showcase that sort of edgy genius, although a sequence that has wicked fun with sound effects is worth singling out. Yet while it may not match up with the best of the silents, The Artist matches up nicely with the best of 2011. Dujardin and Bejo are both enchanting and irresistible, and Hazanavicius' screenplay has no trouble shifting between mirth and melodrama. As for its visual appeal, the black-and-white images are as crisp and dynamic as anything on view in the year's color explosions, whether it's the luminescent paint jobs in Cars 2 or that vibrant rainbow connection in The Muppets. ***1/2

CARNAGE How the movie version of Yasmina Reza's God of Carnage compares to the Tony Award-winning Broadway show I cannot say — Creative Loafing's budget inexplicably does not provide for me to stay a few days in New York to check it out firsthand — but this screen version is a tasty, wicked treat; to borrow a classic phrase from Sweet Smell of Success, it's a cookie full of arsenic. It takes place in the apartment of Penelope and Michael Longstreet (Jodie Foster and John C. Reilly), where they're meeting with Nancy and Alan Cowan (Kate Winslet and Christoph Waltz) to discuss the unfortunate incident wherein the Cowans' son hit the Longstreets' boy with a stick, causing severe damage to his mouth (including the loss of two teeth). The visit begins on a note of cordiality, even though hints of aggression are already bubbling around the edges of the polite chitchat. Sure enough, it doesn't take long before an all-out assault occurs, with the four adults at each other's throats. If Steven Spielberg managed to open up War Horse in a manner that takes full advantage of cinema's gifts — it's so expansive that it's easy to forget a theatrical version resides in its family tree — Roman Polanski does little to make this look like much more than a filmed play. Yet because Carnage is so well-written and performed — and because it runs a rapid 80 minutes — there's none of that stifling claustrophobia that chokes similar one-horse-town stage adaptations. Among the quartet, Waltz delivers the best performance, followed by Winslet, Foster and then Reilly lagging behind. As for Polanski, he masterfully orchestrates all the mind-game mayhem — at times, the scenario recalls a more grounded version of Luis Bunuel's surrealist romps The Exterminating Angel and The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie — although he above all filmmakers constantly reminds us how important it is to separate the artist's personal life from his public offerings. Polanski has made an astounding number of fine motion pictures over the course of his career, yet I would gladly give up the very existence of this one if it meant that, instead of being free to film it, he had been properly prosecuted and were presently imprisoned for raping a child. But because Carnage does in fact exist, it receives thumbs-up for its sly dissection of middle-to-upper-class airs masking true bourgeoisie brutality. ***

THE DESCENDANTS The must-see George Clooney vehicle of 2011 — The Ides of March sure wasn't it — The Descendants might be set in Hawaii, but it's hardly a film defined by its postcard prettiness. Right at the start, director and co-writer Alexander Payne (adapting Kaui Hart Hemmings' novel) shows us a downtown as gritty as that of any sprawling metropolis, while George Clooney's character, Matt King, informs us that Hawaiians have the same miserable problems as those of us living in the contiguous United States. With all romantic notions dispelled, the movie gets down to business. Matt's having a rough time of it, with life coming at him hard from all directions. His wife has had a boating accident and now rests in a coma; to make matters worse, he later learns that she had been having an affair with a realtor (Matthew Lillard) and was possibly going to leave him. His daughters, rebellious teenager Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) and socially awkward Scottie (Amara Miller), don't respect his authority. And as the family member legally entrusted with prime acreage that has belonged to the clan for generations, he must decide between selling it to capitalist opportunists and making himself and his relatives millionaires or holding onto it and winning the approval of those who would hate to see this beautiful land razed. Payne, who also was a guiding force behind Sideways, About Schmidt and Election, has made another terrific movie about recognizably flawed people and the decisions they make that either improve or irrevocably damage their lives. No situation is ever easily digestible in his complex films: Here, Matt doesn't know whether or not he should forgive his wife since she's in a coma, and his children, his father-in-law (Robert Forster) and Alexandra's boyfriend (Nick Krause) alternate between infuriating us and earning our sympathies. Marked by stellar performances (particularly by Clooney, Woodley and Judy Greer as the realtor's wife) and an incisive screenplay, The Descendants packs a real Hawaiian punch. ***1/2

THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO Think of it as the "close but no cigar" brand of cinema, where American adaptations of foreign hits prove to be better than expected yet don't quite trump their predecessors (e.g. Let Me In, The Departed). But now there's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, which manages the impressive feat of emerging as superior to the internationally admired Swedish version from 2009. In many ways, this adheres closely to what audiences witnessed in the first version (both were based on the book by the late Stieg Larsson, the first installment in his Millennium trilogy). As before, two characters leading separate lives find their destinies intertwined: Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara), a punkish, bisexual computer expert who's suspicious of everyone around her, particularly men; and Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig), a wrongly ostracized journalist who accepts a personal assignment from wealthy industrialist Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer) to investigate the decades-removed disappearance of his niece. Only when Mikael realizes he needs an assistant does Lisbeth enter his life, becoming unlikely allies as they solve the mystery together. The 2009 Swedish version is a fine film, but this one is nevertheless an improvement, right from the dazzling opening credits (perhaps the best I've seen during 2011) to an epilogue that's unexpectedly poignant. Director David Fincher works in a crisp, efficient manner, and while the original's Noomi Rapace made for a memorable heroine, Mara is even better, retaining this great character's steely resolve and unfiltered intelligence but confident enough to allow us to see the hurt child residing within. After helming the zeitgeist hit The Social Network, Fincher has been accused by some critics of slumming with this pulpy material, but I beg to differ. Just check out the climactic scene that's set to Enya's "Orinoco Flow" — perhaps not since Michael Mann employed Iron Butterfly's "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida" at the end of Manhunter has a filmmaker so imaginatively, and perversely, merged music with moving imagery. ***1/2

HUGO Movie mavens startled by the fact that Martin Scorsese has elected to direct a family film when he's exalted for his string of hardcore crime flicks clearly know little about either the man or his achievements. Scorsese has hopscotched between genres far more often than he's given credit for — the costume drama The Age of Innocence, the religious epic The Last Temptation of Christ and the black comedy After Hours represent just a sampling — and when he's not helming motion pictures, he's often championing the cause of film preservation. Scorsese has always been a student of film as much as a teacher and practitioner — how I love to hear him passionately discuss classics of cinema! — and with Hugo, he manages to incorporate all facets of his persona. Even more so than The Aviator, this adaptation of Brian Selznick's The Invention of Hugo Cabret is a product steeped in cinema lore, drunk on the fumes of a bygone era yet canny enough to channel its nostalgia through modern innovations. Set in a Parisian train station in the 1930s, the story concerns itself with young Hugo (Asa Butterfield), a parentless child who tends to the building's giant clock while constantly avoiding the grasp of an inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen) hellbent on sending him off to an orphanage. Connected to his late father (Jude Law in a small role) by an automaton that needs repairing, Hugo steals the parts needed from an elderly man named Georges Méliès (Ben Kingsley), who runs a toy store in the station. Eventually caught by the ill-tempered gent, Hugo becomes drawn into his life, befriending his ward Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretz, of Kick-Ass/Hit Girl fame), learning about his past as a film pioneer, and discovering the key — literally — that binds past and present together. Despite registering as a glorious celebration of Méliès, Scorsese hasn't merely made an ode to cineasts; rather, his picture is a moving exploration of the manner in which individuals seek out love and companionship in an effort to form their own version of a nuclear family (every character, even Cohen's bumbling inspector, wages a war against loneliness). The 125-minute running time, leisurely pace and lack of Muppets will probably cause many tots and grown-ups alike to grow fidgety before long, but for the rest of us, we'll always have Paris — and the enchanting movie set therein. ***1/2

IN TIME Can a movie survive on premise alone? That would be a resounding no, since its success also rests squarely on the shoulders of the execution. Yet in the case of In Time, the premise is ingenious enough to cut some slack elsewhere. The movie may not probe as deeply into its subject as desired, but it's nevertheless an enjoyable watch, full of propulsive action and intriguing scenarios. Comparisons to Logan's Run are absurd, since this picture sports its own ideas on what the future might hold. It's a world order in which everyone is genetically designed to live until 25 years of age, at which point they're given one extra year to keep for themselves or use as currency. Because in this story, time literally is money, as a cup of coffee costs four minutes, a bus ride costs two hours, and so on. The rich have the means to acquire hundreds of years to tack onto their lives, while the poor barely have enough time to struggle from day to day. In Time focuses on one of the 99%: Will Salas (Justin Timberlake), whose life is turned upside down after a disillusioned millionaire (Matt Bomer) transfers a full century to him. Amanda Seyfried co-stars as the rich kid who joins Will on the lam, Cillian Murphy plays the Timekeeper (aka lawman) who's in hot pursuit, and writer-director Andrew Niccol (Gattaca) is the one who deserves credit for crafting this heady mix of science fiction and social commentary. ***

THE IRON LADY Taking Meryl Streep out of The Iron Lady and replacing her with just about any other actress would be akin to removing the meat out of a beef Stroganoff dinner and replacing it with a Hostess Twinkie. The result would be a thoroughly indigestible mess, worthy only of being flung into the garbage bin. Yes, Streep delivers yet another note-perfect performance (even if it atypically seems as much surface mimicry as heartfelt emoting), but move beyond her eye-catching work and what remains is a poor movie that does little to illuminate the life and times of Margaret Thatcher, the controversial British Prime Minister who held the position throughout the 1980s. Forget for a minute the movie's soft-pedaling of its central character. Since filmmakers usually desire to be as demographically friendly as possible in order to attract audiences of all stripes, it's no surprise that director Phyllida Lloyd and scripter Abi Morgan fail to devote much time to Thatcher's ample failings, including her abhorrent attitudes toward the poor, the unemployed and even her fellow women. Yet even her few strengths (rising from modest origins, sticking it to the boys' club of British politics, reinstilling a sense of national pride much like her BFF Ronald Reagan was doing stateside) are treated in CliffsNotes fashion, since an oversized amount of the picture focuses on her waning years as a lonely woman suffering from mild dementia, believing she's being frequently visited by her deceased husband Denis (a wasted Jim Broadbent). With so much history and personality to draw upon, it's infuriating that so much of the running time is wasted on mere speculation involving an elderly person's flights of fancy (a problem that also plagued Clint Eastwood's J. Edgar); these sequences, popping up every few minutes, effectively destroy any sense of pacing or continuity and ineptly attempt to soften a world figure who didn't exactly earn her titular nickname by publicly surrounding herself with Paddington Bear dolls. *1/2

JACK AND JILL Less than 48 hours before I embarked on the courageous journey to attend the screening of Jack and Jill, a co-worker offered his theory that Adam Sandler deliberately makes movies out of the stupidest ideas he can conjure, simply to prove that his fans will see him in anything. I stated that the comedian's next film will be Diarrhea Man, about a guy who spends his entire life sitting on a toilet making flatulent sounds, and the fact that my colleague couldn't tell whether I was joking or not says everything anyone needs to know about the cesspool of cinema known as the Adam Sandler Oeuvre. Jack and Jill certainly ranks near the very bottom; it's stupid and infantile, of course, but it's also lazy and contemptuous, a clear sign that Sandler and director Dennis Dugan (his seventh Sandler film; stop him before he kills again!) aren't even trying anymore, safe in the knowledge that audiences will emulate Divine in John Waters' Pink Flamingos and chow down on whatever dog shit is presented to him. Here, the stench is particularly potent, as this story about an obnoxious ad man (Sandler) and his whiny, overbearing sister (Sandler in drag) is a nonstop parade of scatological bits, prominent product placements, faux-hip cameos (Johnny Depp, welcome to the halls of whoredom), wink-wink chauvinism, racism and xenophobia, icky incest gags, annoying voices (not just Sandler as Jill but also the made-up language spoken by the siblings), and the usual small roles for Sandler's beer buddies (including, groan, David Spade in drag). Al Pacino co-stars as himself, inexplicably smitten with Jill; he provides the film's only two or three chuckles (especially a line about the Oscars), but even long before the sequence in which he raps about doughnuts, it's clear that he's become an ever bigger sellout than Robert De Niro. Now that's saying something. *

MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE — GHOST PROTOCOL There's a scene in Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol in which Tom Cruise's agent extraordinaire Ethan Hunt must climb up the outside of a tall building with only the aid of a pair of electronic gloves that fasten themselves to any given surface. It isn't enough that it's a towering edifice — it has to be Dubai's Burj Khalifa, merely the tallest building in the world. And it isn't enough that a pair of gloves seem like scarce supplies for a climbing expedition — one of the blasted things must malfunction during the ascent, meaning a single hand is all that prevents Ethan from falling to his doom a hundred-plus stories below. And did I mention that, during the descent, he's a few stories shy of reaching safety, meaning he has to swing around wildly like a pinata that's been whacked a few times in the hopes of propelling himself into an open window? It's utterly ridiculous — and also utterly exciting. The fourth M:I film based on the classic TV series — and the third to be worth a damn (only the second one was a letdown) — this wisely continues the tradition of assigning a different director to each chapter, going from Brian De Palma to John Woo to J.J. Abrams and now to Brad Bird. In making his live-action debut, Bird demonstrates that he's not going to allow a real-world setting to hamper an imagination that had been instrumental in making toon tales like Ratatouille and The Incredibles. The plotline is so hoary that it might as well have come from a 1960s-era Bond flick: A Russian madman (Michael Nyqvist) plans to cleanse the earth via a nuclear war, and it's up to the only active members of the Impossible Missions Force (Cruise, Paula Patton and Simon Pegg), plus a government analyst harboring a secret (Jeremy Renner), to take him down. At 135 minutes, the film admittedly overstays its welcome — the coda is particularly draggy, even if it does offer a pair of pleasing cameos — and Cruise's Ethan Hunt is more inscrutable than ever. But for action buffs desperate for a hit to jump-start their hearts, here's a Mission impossible to refuse. ***

THE MUPPETS Yes, it may be true that The Muppets is a film for the whole family, but here's a cruel suggestion: Hire a babysitter and leave the kids at home. After all, what grownup weaned on a steady diet of Muppet episodes and movies wants to interrupt their jaunt down memory lane by having to escort weak bladders to the bathroom or hungry mouths to the concession stand? Jason Segel, a self-proclaimed Muppet devotee who co-wrote the screenplay with Nicholas Stoller, plays Gary, who takes his girlfriend Mary (Amy Adams) and his equally Muppet-obsessed brother Walter — who, incidentally, happens to be a puppet himself — to Los Angeles for vacation. When they stop at the old Muppet studio, they're shocked to see it dilapidated and abandoned; they're even more upset when they discover that ruthless businessman Tex Richman (Chris Cooper) plans to buy the property, tear down the studio and drill for oil. In an effort to save the hallowed ground, the trio head off to find Kermit, Miss Piggy, Fozzie and the rest of the gang. On the down time, Walter's pretty much a drip, both as a character and a Muppet, and instead of even creating him in the first place (when you think about it, he's not really necessary to the overall arc), I would rather Segel and Stoller had spent more time on the already established puppet personalities. And the cameos, by and large, are a disappointing lot. 1979's The Muppet Movie gave us comedy titans like Richard Pryor, Mel Brooks, Bob Hope and Madeline Kahn; this film can only counter with Ken Jeong, Zach Galifianakis, John Krasinski and Selena Gomez. Running the risk of sounding like Statler and Waldorf, though, I had best stop with the naysaying. At any rate, the majority of the film is pure pleasure, full of knowing winks to the franchise's time and place in history: the bouncy "Mahna Mahna"; Kermit's celebrity Rolodex, long outdated ("May I speak to President Carter?"); the lovely "The Rainbow Connection" (just try and not tear up during that moment); and the creation of '80s Robot, whose computer-related gag provided me with the biggest laugh I've enjoyed in a theater this year. ***1/2

NEW YEAR'S EVE This waste of energy proves to be even tougher to take than director Garry Marshall's previous all-star holiday romp, Valentine's Day. As in that film, numerous familar faces take part in superficial vignettes all centered around the title holiday. Although it squanders any intriguing potential for a May-December romance, the storyline in which a cocky messenger boy (Zac Efron) helps a depressed woman (Michelle Pfeiffer) fulfill her New Year's resolutions is the best episode primarily thanks to Pfeiffer, the only person in this entire film investing any genuine emotion into her character. At the other end of the spectrum is the thread in which two pregnant women (Jessica Biel and Sarah Paulson) and their husbands (Seth Meyers and Til Schweiger) are eager to win the sizable cash prize given by a local hospital to the couple who produces the first baby of the new year; this is the most godawful of all the segments, and not just because someone yells out, "May the best vajayjay win!" Among the other less-than-scintillating tales are a real snoozer in which a sympathetic nurse (slumming Oscar winner Halle Berry) tends to a dying man (slumming Oscar winner Robert De Niro) whose only wish is to see the ball drop; the dramatically inert episode about a glitch in the Times Square ball, made watchable only by the likable turns by Hilary Swank, Hector Elizondo and Chris "Ludacris" Bridges; a piece in which a slacker (perpetually annoying Ashton Kutcher) who hates the holiday is trapped in an elevator with a singer (Lea Michele) desperate to escape; and a piece in which a caterer (perpetually annoying Katherine Heigl) is angry at the boyfriend (Jon Bon Jovi) who ran away from her a year ago but has now reentered her life. I can hardly wait for Marshall's Arbor Day. *1/2

PUSS IN BOOTS Stanley Roper was arguably the funniest character on the long-running TV series Three's Company (not a difficult feat, admittedly), but that didn't mean it was wise to yank him and the missus out of their supporting stints on that hit show in order to place them front and center in a sitcom (The Ropers) that barely lasted a year. Similarly, Jennifer Garner's Elektra worked well in tandem with Ben Affleck's blind superhero in Daredevil, but absolutely no one cared when she was given her very own starring vehicle. So even though Antonio Banderas' Puss in Boots owned the Shrek franchise from the moment he was introduced in the second film, that was no reason to elevate him to, erm, leading-cat status in Puss in Boots. Certainly, the fault doesn't rest with Banderas, who's as game as ever. But this animated effort wants to have it both ways: It retains the sort of tiresome, snarky humor that defined the Shrek series while also trafficking in the type of obvious morals found in more traditional toon fare. The end result is a listless movie that doesn't have much to offer beyond keeping the kids quiet for 90 minutes. The plot concerns the uneasy alliance between Puss, the equally accomplished Kitty Softpaws (Salma Hayek, re-teaming with her Desperado co-star) and the annoying Humpty Dumpty (Zach Galifianakis) as they attempt to first steal three magic beans and then the fabled Golden Goose. There are a handful of amusing exchanges ("I thought a cat always landed on its feet." "No! That's just a rumor spread by dogs!"), but for the most part, the stale wisecracks are on the order of "First rule of Bean Club: You do not talk about Bean Club." With soft lobs like this, it's clear Puss in Boots is one movie that was declawed before it even got close to the screen. **

SHERLOCK HOLMES: A GAME OF SHADOWS If I wanted to see a movie featuring Indiana Jones, I would watch Raiders of the Lost Ark. If I wanted to see a movie featuring James Bond, I would watch Goldfinger. If I wanted to see a movie featuring Sherlock Holmes, I would watch — well, certainly not Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, which might as well be a period Expendables prequel for all the reverence given to the legendary sleuth. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Baker Street brainiac remains one of literature's greatest detectives, but because actions always count more than words in today's Hollywood, 2009's Sherlock Holmes reinvented the character as a kick-ass macho man, more Rambo than Miss Marple. Nevertheless, the freshness of Robert Downey Jr.'s exuberant portrayal as Holmes and the measured counterpoint provided by Jude Law as Dr. Watson managed to overpower Guy Ritchie's hyperkinetic direction. Not this time. Ritchie's showoff stylistics are often embarrassing to behold — this is particularly true in the action sequences, of which there are countless. As he battles his deadly nemesis Professor Moriarty (Jared Harris) and his minions, Holmes most often applies his formidable smarts not to uncovering clues but to enhancing his advantage in hand-to-hand skirmishes. Is this Sherlock Holmes or Muhammad Ali? Some silly asides, such as Holmes' camouflage coat, are best forgotten, but the steady bickering between Holmes and Watson has yet to reach the straining point (thank the ingratiating actors for that). And while Rooney Mara adopts the Lisbeth Salander role for the Yank version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, the original's Lisbeth, Noomi Rapace, turns up here as a gypsy fortune teller. Her character's services aren't required to predict that Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows will emerge as an international blockbuster, with audiences flocking to see a dizzying swirl of furious fisticuffs, blazing gunfights, and theater-rocking explosions. Me, I'll be home watching my Columbo box sets. **

TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY Many viewers might find it easier to wade through quicksand while sporting cement blocks on their feet than understanding just what the heck is going on during the opening half-hour of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Author John le Carre's 1974 novel required a seven-part miniseries that ran over five hours when it premiered on the BBC back in 1979, yet here's an attempt to compress all this intel into a shade over two hours. The early stretch of this chilly Cold War drama will indeed be tough going for moviegoers acclimated to the comparative simplicity of the Bourne trilogy (to say nothing of the 007 oeuvre), but those willing to pay attention will be rewarded with a film of unexpected intricacy and various small pleasures. Tackling the role that Alec Guinness owned in the miniseries, Gary Oldman is quietly effective as George Smiley, a key member of the British Secret Intelligence Service (aka MI6, aka "The Circus"). So taciturn that he's likely to be mistaken for a character in the silent film The Artist, Smiley initially remains on the sidelines as the SIS head, known only as Control (John Hurt), deduces that one of the organization's top men is actually a mole working for the Russians. But a sabotaged mission leads to the mandatory retirement of both Smiley and Control, and it's only after the latter passes away that Smiley is brought back to ferret out the leak. The central material concerning the four suspects (played by Colin Firth, Ciaran Hinds, Toby Jones and David Dencik) actually proves to be the least compelling part of the picture, and the unmasking of the traitor is more apt to elicit shrugs than gasps. What makes the movie cling to our senses are the soulful transgressions of other key characters: the maverick agent (a wired Tom Hardy) who falls in love at the wrong time; the assistant (Benedict Cumberbatch) whose personal life proves to be as dependent on secrets as his professional one; the bureau's discarded expert on Russia (Kathy Burke), wistfully drawing on nostalgia-tinged memories; and the field agent (Mark Strong) quietly shattered by betrayal. As far as le Carre screen adaptations go, I much prefer 1965's The Spy Who Came In from the Cold and 2005's The Constant Gardener, although it probably should be noted that the author himself considers this the best filmization of one of his works. Conversely, Bret Easton Ellis Tweeted about the awfulness of this movie. Le Carre vs. Ellis — considering that's the mental and literary equivalent of a brawl between Godzilla and Jar Jar Binks, I'd say it's safe for discerning viewers to give this a shot. ***

TOWER HEIST Cineastes won't allow something as trivial as Tower Heist to dislodge Dassin's Rififi or Kubrick's The Killing as their caper film of choice, but as far as seasonal multiplex blockbusters go, this one's not bad at all. The much maligned Brett Ratner, whose last two features were the godawful Rush Hour 3 and the series-sapping X-Men: The Last Stand, basically stays out of the way of his four writers and 10 stars, allowing them to strut their stuff in this comedy about a group of working stiffs who decide to take financial revenge on the crooked Wall Street fat cat (Alan Alda) who swindled them out of their savings. The characters are far more interesting than the actual heist that eats up the final portion of the film, so it's a good thing we're allowed to spend plenty of time getting to know them during the first hour. Ben Stiller is fine as the building manager who plots the robbery; Eddie Murphy displays some of that '80s brashness (long buried under family-film complacency) as a career criminal who lends a hand; and Matthew Broderick, Michael Pena and Precious star Gabourey Sidibe contribute some well-timed laughs. Then there's Tea Leoni as a diligent FBI agent; her drunk scene is one of the highlights of the film and makes me wish that Hollywood would remember to employ her on a more consistent basis. ***

THE TWILIGHT SAGA: BREAKING DAWN — PART 1 TTS:BD-P1, the latest in Stephenie Meyer's wildly successful page-and-screen franchise, opens with 18-year-old Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart) preparing to marry the considerably older — but still Tiger Beat pinup-worthy — vampire Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson). Although she plans to allow Edward to eventually bite her and turn her into a fellow vampire, she decides to remain human for the honeymoon — a fact that disturbs romantic rival and part-time werewolf Jacob Black (Taylor Lautner). Jacob believes that hanky panky between a vampire and a human might lead to the latter's death, a theory he possibly picked up from enjoying too much hentai. At any rate, the inadvertent S&M sessions between the newlyweds yield something more unexpected than a few bruises on Bella: a pregnancy that will result in either a human baby, a vampire suckling or some ungodly combination of both. Writer-director Bill Condon, who deservedly won an Oscar for penning the adaptation of Gods and Monsters, has only been assigned helming duties here, with Melissa Rosenberg retaining her job as scripter of all the films. They both deserve equal blame for the first half of this picture, which plays like a drably lit, monotonously written and indifferently acted soap opera. But as the movie is set to reach a point of no return (around the time Bella and Edward gaze into each other's eyes for, oh, the 268th time), some interesting dynamics come into play. Jacob's love for Bella forces him to side with the hated Cullens against the rest of the wolf pack, while the Rosemary's Baby-esque drama results in some modest tension. Even during the superior second half, there are so many pop tunes crammed onto the soundtrack that viewers might feel like the movie was made only to support CD sales, and a sequence involving talking wolves ranks among the most risible of the year. But critiques really have no weight when it comes to movies like this. The haters are gonna hate, the fans are gonna love, and everyone else will check the movie listings and their own wallets before deciding if this is the best option for a night on the town. **1/2

WAR HORSE Steven Spielberg is no novice when it comes to presenting moviegoers with the horrors of war, whether it's the muted screams of Schindler's List, the frontline carnage of Saving Private Ryan or even the knotty retaliations of Munich. While all those films deservedly earned R ratings, don't be fooled into thinking the PG-13 War Horse takes a softer approach to the subject at hand — with one specific scene, Spielberg establishes that his World War I epic, like some of the platoons marching through it, won't take any prisoners. Before that sequence arrives, we're introduced to the majestic title animal, a horse (named Joey) who bonds with youthful farmhand Albert (Jeremy Irvine) before being sold to the British army. A sensitive captain (Tom Hiddleston) promises Albert that he'll take good care of Joey, but the horse doesn't remain in the officer's hands; instead, Joey finds himself passing between soldiers and civilians, between Brits and Germans, between kindly souls and abusive monsters. A young girl offers him a home; a German officer plans to work him until he drops dead; soldiers from each side team up to save him. And so it goes. Based on the smash stage hit, War Horse has been opened up in breathtaking fashion for the screen, vibrantly bringing each vignette to life and allowing them to collectively address how war diminishes not just humankind but irrevocably destroys surrounding environs. War Horse is a movie of rage, but it's also one of empathy and understanding — it's to Spielberg's credit that he knows the storyline is emotionally wrenching enough that he doesn't need to manipulate tears out of anyone (believe you me, many viewers won't need any coaxing to reach for those hankies at the appropriate moments). Only with the final shot selections does the director succumb to the sort of artistic grandstanding that's sometimes in his nature, but these screensaver images hardly negate the power and the fury of the hard-charging movie that precedes them. ***1/2

WE BOUGHT A ZOO While the concept of dotting the i's and crossing the t's is a wonderful one to pass along to small children just learning how to write, it earns Cameron Crowe a failing grade for rigidly applying it to We Bought a Zoo, a film whose fussiness about every single detail results in audience members not having the luxury to think or feel for themselves. Based on a true story, this stars Matt Damon as Benjamin Mee, a recent widower who decides, in cornpone Green Acres fashion, to quit city life and move into a country home. As the new owner, he's required to take care of the failing zoo on the expansive property, so he relies on a motley crew of staffers to show him the ropes and bring him up to speed. Eventually, he falls for the lead zookeeper (Kevin James — whoops, wrong movie; Scarlett Johansson). Watching this movie, it's hard to believe Crowe once helmed such finely crafted pictures as Jerry Maguire, Almost Famous and the underrated Vanilla Sky. As both director and co-writer (with Aline Brosh McKenna), he stumbles right at the start, when he fails to immediately establish essential information regarding the zoo (its parameters, the types of animals it houses, etc.). Instead, he's too busy working overtime to make sure we're visually and emotionally led by the hand so we don't miss anything. If Benjamin says something idiotic, there's a monkey ready to smack his own forehead in exasperation. If Benjamin fondly recalls his dearly departed wife, she's ready to appear in ethereal form. Clearly, Crowe doesn't trust viewers to make it from Point A to Point B without stumbling or getting lost. Damon and Johansson are reliable as always, and Thomas Haden Church contributes a few chuckles as Benjamin's skeptical brother. But the zoo crew, meant to be quirky, is merely tiresome, the so-called villains (a smarmy inspector, a backstabbing accountant) are laughably manufactured, and the animals are rarely shown in all their glory. But hey, at least they're not burdened with the gift of gab. *1/2

YOUNG ADULT In an effort to prove she was more than just a pretty face, Charlize Theron was horribly made up for Monster and dowdily dressed down for North Country, consequently winning an Academy Award for the former and a nomination for the latter. In Young Adult, Theron has no need for such transformations: She looks weathered but beautiful, and it's easy to believe that her character, Mavis Gary, was one of the most popular girls at her high school back in the day. Make no mistake: Mavis is ugly, but that unattractiveness emanates solely from the inside. And Theron, ever the trouper, is only too happy to bring it to the surface in this wicked, biting seriocomedy. The Juno team of writer Diablo Cody and director Jason Reitman have reunited for another movie about an idiosyncratic individual, but Mavis Gary is the polar opposite of the sensible and intelligent character played by Ellen Page in that 2007 gem. An unkempt, hard-drinking ghostwriter for a popular "young adult" franchise now on its last legs, Mavis leaves her Minneapolis stomping ground and returns to the dinky Minnesota hometown she detests, with the sole purpose of landing the one that got away. That would be her high school boyfriend Buddy Slade (Patrick Wilson), and what Mavis ignores in her quixotic quest is that Buddy is happily married to the sweet Beth (Elizabeth Reaser) and they've just welcomed a baby into the world. Dismissive of the wife and kid ("I've got baggage, too!"), Mavis continues her pursuit, despite the advice of former classmate Matt Freehauf (Patton Oswalt) to cease and desist. Theron is excellent in the central role — never once does she angle for audience sympathy — yet the real ace might be Oswalt, who's terrific as a guy who's endured genuine hardships in his life. Like Mavis, he's also trapped in the past and needs to grow up, but his good heart and sensible brain suggest that, of the pair, he's the one who stands a better chance of belatedly snagging the senior superlative, Most Likely To Succeed. ***

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