THE BOOK OF ELI It’s getting crowded out there in the post-apocalypse. After 2012, and The Road, now it’s Denzel Washington fighting his way across the ravaged landscape in this action drama from the Hughes Brothers, protecting the secret he carries, the only hope for the survival of humankind. Gary Oldman, Jennifer Beals, and Michael Gambon co-star. (R) 118 minutes. Starts Friday.
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CRAZY HEART Reviewed this issue.
(R) 111 minutes. (★★★1/2)
A SINGLE MAN
Reviewed this issue.
(R) 99 minutes. (★★★)
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THE LOVELY BONES Peter Jackson segues from the vastness of Tolkien to the delicate intimacy of the bestselling novel by Alice Sebold. Saoirse Ronan (the little girl in Atonement) stars as the murdered teenage heroine who watches over her family from the afterlife while weighing what to do about her murderer. Mark Wahlberg and Rachel Weisz are the grieving parents she leaves behind; Stanley Tucci, Susan Sarandon, and Michael Imperioli co-star. (PG-13) 135 minutes. Starts Friday.
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THE SPY NEXT DOOR Jackie Chan stars as an ex-CIA op retired to suburbia in this family comedy. When his girlfriend’s kids unwittingly hack into a top-secret computer code, Chan’s old KGB nemesis comes to town to track down the leak. Georghe Lopez and Amber Valletta co-star for director Brian Levant. (PG) Starts Friday.
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CONTINUING SERIES: MIDNIGHTS @ THE DEL MAR Eclectic movies for wild & crazy tastes plus great prizes and buckets of fun for only $6.50. This week: THE DARK KNIGHT Praised by some, as a hero, but reviled by others as an amok vigilante, Christian Bale’s Batman is at war with his own methods in Christopher Nolan’s violent urban 2008 melodrama. Nolan’s complicated narrative is burdened with incomprehensible action sequences, roaring engines and swelling music that drown out the dialogue—none of which matters when the irreplaceable Heath Ledger shows up as The Joker. Ledger is pure rampaging id, perversion personified. Every frame he’s onscreen is breathtaking, a free-fall plunge into a turbulent psyche as compelling as it is repellent. It’s also an insanely funny performance, not to be missed. (PG-13) 152 minuutes. (HHH)— Lisa Jensen. Fri-Sat midnight only. At the Del Mar.
CONTINUING EVENT: LET’S TALK ABOUT THE MOVIES This informal movie discussion group meets at the Del Mar mezzanine in downtown Santa Cruz. Movie junkies are invited to join in on Wednesday nights to discuss current flicks with a rotating series of guest moderators. Discussion begins at 7 pm and admission is free. For more information visit www.ltatm.org.
ALVIN AND THE CHIPMUNKS: THE SQUEAKUEL In this second installment of the franchise, the animated rodent trio signs up for a battle-of-the-bands contest to earn cash for a school music program, but find themselves in competition with a girl-group called the Chipettes. Live-action co-stars include Jason Lee, Zachary Levi, and Drew Barrymore. Betty Thomas directs. (PG)
AVATAR James Cameron proves he still has some mojo in this wildly fascinating, often compelling new sci-fi epic. The story revolves around a US military unit sent to a tropical planet whose cultured, indigenous warrior population will do anything to keep their land intact. Sam Worthington takes the lead role here, offering an impressive turn as a young war vet technologically altered to resemble native people—he’s sent in as a scout. Zoe Saldana is the indigenous tribeswoman. Sigourney Weaver also costars alongside Michelle Rodriguez. A riveting unforgettable ride with a powerful message that doesn’t feel overly preachy. (PG-13) 150 minutes. (★★★1/2)—Greg Archer
BROKEN EMBRACES (LOS ABRAZOS ROTOS) Lust and obsession, storytelling and filmmaking, betrayal and redemption—all are whipped into a gorgeous and volatile froth in this spicy drama from Pedro Almodóvar, served with a side of wry. A blind filmmaker with a split identity, a powerful financier, and Penelope Cruz at her most vibrant and earthy, as the woman both love propel the plot that keeps us on edge and enthralled. But it’s Almodóvar’s love affair with the delirium of filmic storytelling (from his artfully fragmented narrative and beauteous visuals to sly comic homages) that make this a gift to be cherished by a master of the rapturous. (R) 128 minuutes. In Spanish with English subtitles. (★★★★)—Lisa Jensen.
THE BLIND SIDE It’s true—Sandra Bullock shines here. Basded on the real-life story of All-American football star Michael Oher is dramatized in this inspirational tale. Bullock is the woman who virtually adopts the homeless, neglected teen into her family and changes his life—and theirs. Newcomer Quinton Aaron plays Oher. Tim McGraw and Kathy Bates co-star. (PG-13) 126 minutes. (★★★)—Greg Archer
DAYBREAKERS In the near future when a rampant virus has turned most of the earth’s population into the bloodsucking undead, biologist Ethan Hawke races to find a cure to restore humanity in this Australian vampire thriller from filmmaking brothers Michael and Peter Spierig. Willem Dafoe and Sam Neill co-star. (R) 98 minutes.
FANTASTIC MR. FOX Wes Anderson (of all people) directs this adaptation of the Roald Dahl children’s story using vintage-style stop-motion animation techniques. George Clooney and Meryl Streep provide voices. (PG) 88 minutes.
THE IMAGINARIUM OF DOCTOR PARNASSUS Terry Gilliam’s epic fantasy (does he make any other kind?) ought to be better than it is: the pacing is off, his handling of actors can be erratic, and posing imagination as the opposite of evil makes for a slippery plot device. But the movie’s scruffy pleasures are in the details—from the tawdry, retro fun-house charm of the carnival sideshow that inspires the title, to some lovely moments provided by the marvelous Tom Waits as a purring, deadpan Devil. Heath Ledger is both delicious and bittersweet in his last film role as a mystery man who takes to the carny’s life with silky finesse, and Gilliam’s use of three other actors (Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell) to play aspects of Ledge’s character makes great narrative sense. As messy and imperfect as it often is, the movie scores points as a celebration of both the human imagination and the power of storytelling. (PG-13) 122 minutes. (★★★)—Lisa Jensen.
IT’S COMPLICATED The ever-busy Meryl Streep teams up with Alec Baldwin for this romantic comedy: they’re divorced, he’s remarried a younger woman, and they confuse everybody by falling into an illicit affair after their son’s wedding. Steve Martin, John Krasinski, Rita Wilson, and Hunter Parrish co-star for director Nancy Meyers. (R)
INVICTUS Sports and politics mix in this true story of how restored South African president Nelson Mandela (Morgan Freeman) joined with national rugby team captain, Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon), to unite the country devastated by the aftermath of apartheid during the 1995 World Cup championship race. Clint Eastwood directs on location in Johannesburg and Cape Town. Based on the non-fiction book “Playing The Enemy,” by John Carlin. (PG-13) 133 minutes. (★★★1/2) —Greg Archer
LEAP YEAR En route to Ireland to propose to her longtime boyfriend on Leap Day (according to an old Irish custom), American Amy Adams is rerouted to the Welsh countryside, where she meets simpatico innkeeper Matthew Goode, in this romantic comedy. Anand Tucker directs. (PG)
ME AND ORSON WELLES Richard Linklater directs this entertaining period piece in which a young drama student (Zac Efron) in 1937 New York City stumbles into a part in what will become the landmark Mercury Theatre production of Julius Caesar, directed by then-22-year-old enfant terrible Orson Welles. Christian McKay is absolutely extraordinary in a towering portrayal that captures Welles in all his arrogance, charm, and genius. Clare Danes is the gal Friday who shows the newbie the ropes; Ben Chaplin delivers a splendid, scene-stealing turn as acidic classical actor George Coulouris. (PG-13) 109 minutes. (★★★)—Lisa Jensen.
NINE Try to follow along: Rob Marshall (Chicago) directs this musical film based on the popular stage musical that was inspired by the Fellini film classic, 8 1/2. Daniel Day-Lewis stars as a befuddled film director. Nicole Kidman, Marion Cotillard, Penelope Cruz, Judi Dench, Kate Hudson, and Sophia Loren (as the director’s mother) are the women in his life. Hudson , Cotillard, Cruz and Dench all stand out and the production numbers are often riveting. The problem? Day-Lewis is miscast. You never warm up to him or care about his evolution. (PG-13) 118 minutes. (★★) —Greg Archer
PRECIOUS Lee Daniels’ masterful film, adapted from the 1996 novel, “Push,” by poet-turned-author Sapphire, shows how the tiniest flicker of compassion can transform a life of complete degradation into something triumphant. Gabourey Sidibe gives an astounding, adjective-defying performance in the title role, a wary, mountainous, hard-luck Harlem teenager who has learned to hide her spirit beneath protective layers of flesh and silence. But Sidibe reveals the vibrant, questing self inside the character with grace and a fierce authenticity. Mo’Nique is incendiary as the girl’s toxic mother in this uncompromising, inventive and rewarding film. (R) 109 minutes. (★★★★)—Lisa Jensen
THE PRINCESS AND THE FROG It’s taken the folks at Walt Disney more than seven decades to create their first African-American cartoon heroine, and when they finally do, she spends most of the movie green when a fairy tale kiss goes awry. But this movie is so much fun, and culturally rich, with its New Orleans/Louisiana bayou setting, there’s not much else to quibble about. Anika Noni Rose provides the lovely voice of the spirited heroine, and Bruno Campos oozes charm, wit, and joie de vivre as one of the funniest, most appealling heroes ever in a “Disney princess” movie. Lively songs by Randy Newman, and gorgeous hand-drawn cel animation make this one of the most entertaining Disney cartoon features since The Lion King. (G) 97 minutes. (★★★1/2)—Lisa Jensen.
THE ROAD Author Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic tale of a father and son journeying across a devastated landscape warns what might happen if Nature suddenly turned as savagely self-destructive as the humans who inhabit it. Viggo Mortensen is a ferocious force of nature unto himself as the haggard scavenger father keeping his son alive. (R) 119 minutes. (★★★)—Lisa Jensen.
SHERLOCK HOLMES How could such a great cast and clever idea go so horribly wrong? Ask director Guy Ritchie, perpetrator of this soulless reboot, which reduces the rich possibilities of the Holmes canon down to a boring, conventional, action buddy-bromance. Robert Downey Jr. is as fun to watch as ever as a younger Holmes so hypersensitive to stimuli, he can barely function outside his man cave, but he’s playing Downey, not Holmes. Jude Law provides stature as a much more martial, war-hero Dr. Watson, trying to break free to marry his fiancee (Kelly Reilly, with far too little to do), but he’s mosty stuck playing straight man. Ritchie has no idea how to move the story along; cliffhangers segue into totally unrelated scenes with no transitions, and he stops the action dead in its tracks over and over again for idiotic fistfights. (Most of which are replayed twice, in fast- and slo-mo, as Ritchie lingers over the mechanics. Why is Holmes fist-fighting at all? Isn’t that why he has a superior brain?) No one cares about the mystery plot, including Ritchie, yet he keeps hammering it home with replays and flashbacks that make an already overlong film feel like years. An aggravating disappointment. (R) 140 minutes. (★)—Lisa Jensen.
UP IN THE AIR It’s one of the best films of 2009 and it’s high time you experience it. Watch and relish how this clever film wins you over and keeps up interested in its characters from beginning to end. The film is also a rich expose of the times we’re living in—when real connecting and real communication have been become so fractured that we seem to only expereince rare glimpses of ourselves in the shadows of our ever-busy lives. (What are we so busy doing, anyway?) George Clooney headlines this comedy-drama about a business exec who spends all his time on the road. Vera Farmiga is a fellow traveler and soon the two frolic during layovers. (No pun intended.) Jason Bateman and Anna Kendrick co-star as Clooney’s coworkers in a company that helps other companies lay off their employees. Jason Reitman (Juno) directs and co-wrote this adaptation of the Walter Kim novel. Not to be missed. (R) 109 minutes. (★★★1/2)—Greg Archer
THE YOUNG VICTORIA Jean-Marc Vallee’s sumptuously mounted historical drama offers an intriguing glimpse of the lonely, fatherless, inexperienced 18-year-old girl thrust onto the throne of England (and destined to give her name to an entire age) before and after her succession to the crown. The radiant Emily Blunt is a graceful, yet piquant Victoria, and the ever-watchable Rupert Friend is charmingly soft-spoken and thoughtful as her groom-to-be, Albert. How coltish young Victoria figures out how to resist manipulation, place her trust where it’s deserved, and blossom into the woman and monarch she needs to become give this handsome and entertaining history lesson a modern edge. (PG) 100 minutes. (★★★)—Lisa Jensen.
YOUTH IN REVOLT Michael Cera stars as both Nick Twisp, precocious hero and would-be sexual adventurer of the tart series of YA novels by C. D. Payne, and Nick’s suave fantasy alter-ego, Francois Dillinger. Portia Doubleday plays the sexy new girl in town to whom Nick determines to lose his virginity. Steve Buscemi and Jean Smart are on board as his parents. Screenwriter Gustin Nash does a fine job, given the challenges of whittling down Nick’s immense, imaginative universe from the literary adventures, and director Miguel Arteta gives this amusing romp a genuine liveliness not often seen in teen comedies. (R) 90 minutes. (★★★)—Greg Archer.