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 fo Mr. And Mrs. Fox, whose happy suburban life is threatened when Mr. Fox gives in to his animal instincts and endangers the entire animal community. Jason Schwartzman, Bill Murray, Owen Wlson, and Michael Gambon also contribute voices. (PG) 88 minutes. Starts Wednesday.
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OLD DOGS John Travolta and Robin Williams star in this family comedy as a couple of single, middle-aged buddies still trying to land the elusive big score that will set them up for life who are suddenly entrusted with the care of 7-year-old twins (Travolta’s real-life daughter, Ella Bleu, and Conner Rayburn). Kelly Preston, Seth Green, and Matt Dillon co-star for director Walt Becker (Wild Hogs). (PG) Starts Wednesday.
THE MESSENGER Reviewed this issue. (R) 105 minutes. (★★★) Starts Friday.
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WOMEN IN TROUBLE Reviewed this issue. (R) 92 minutes. (★★) —Lisa Jensen
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NINJA ASSASSIN Korean pop star Rain plays the title role in this contemporary martial arts action thriller about an orphan plucked off the streets and turned into a killing machine by a crime syndicate who goes rogue and turns against his mentors after the murder of a friend. Naomie Harris co-stars as a Europol agent on the trail of the syndicate who joins the assassin on his quest for revenge. Rick Yune co-stars for director James McTeigue (V for Vendetta). (R) 99 minutes. Starts Wedensday.
CONTINUING SERIES: MIDNIGHTS @ THE DEL MAR takes the holiday weekend off. Will return December 4-5.
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. This week: PRECIOUS Discussion begins at 7 pm and admission is free. For more information visit www.ltatm.org.
AMELIA Hilary Swank stars in the role she was probably born to play, tousle-haired, tomboyish aviatrix Amelia Earhart, whose daring solo flights, unconventional lifestyle, and myserious disappearance have fascinated the world for nearly a century. Richard Gere and Ewan McGregor co-star as the men in her life. Mira Nair (The Namesake; Monsoon Wedding) directs. (PG) 111 minutes.
AN EDUCATION Drenched in early ’60s atmosphere, and impeccably produced in every detail, Lone Scherfig’s adaptation of the Lynn Barber memoir tells a familiar story about a dewy-eyed young women and a worldly older man. The plot is never entirely believable onscreen, but the emotions involved are explored with honesty, insight, and humor. Newcomer Carey Mulligan plays the schoolgirl heroine with disarming girlishness, pert sophistication, and tart self-awareness. But Peter Sarsgaard is not a naturally irresistible charmer; as the older man, his emotional palette seems studied and insincere. That he worms himself so easily into her parents’ good graces is a credibility gap from which the film never recovers. (PG-13) 95 minutes. (★★1/2)—Lisa Jensen.
A SERIOUS MAN Joel and Ethan Coen set this strikingly deadpan, comic tragedy in a suburban midwestern Jewish community ca. 1967. The setting couldn’t be more personal to the Coens, but the questions they raise about faith, tradition, family values, and the meaning of life are universal—however wickedly perverse the Coens’ perspective may be. Everyman Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) is a university math professor whose life is starting to unravel. Increasingly frazzled, yet ever accommodating, Larry’s crises seem to pile up in direct proportion to the ineffectuality of his responses. Turning to a series of rabbis to help him understand God’s plan in sending him so much grief, all he gets are half-baked analogies and pointless fables. Dripping acerbic wit, the film is a weirdly engrossing portrait of meltdown in the face of a chaotic universe over which there may not be any plan. The one piece of useful advice anyone gets in the movie (from a very unexpected source) slyly suggests the continuity with which humans try to provide comforting answers to imponderable questions from one generation to the next. (R) 105 minutes. (★★★)—Lisa Jensen.
THE BLIND SIDE The real-life story of All-American football star Michael Oher is dramatized in this inspirational tale. Sandra Bullock stars as the neighbor woman who virtually adopts the homeless, neglected teenage Oher into her family and changes his life—and theirs. Newcomer Quinton Aaron plays Oher. Tim McGraw and Kathy Bates co-star for director John Lee Hancock (The Rookie). (PG-13) 126 minutes.
COCO BEFORE CHANEL The rise of Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel from impoverished orphan to one of the most influential of 20th Century fashion designers is perfect for the big, lush biopic treatment. Still, Belgian filmmaker Anne Fontaine brings something extra to the mix; every lovely frame of her thoughtful film is informed by a resonant empathy for Chanel as a stylist, a woman, and an outsider hungry to succeed on her own terms. Audrey Tatou is a fine, piquant, caustic Coco. The excellent Benoit Poelvoorde and Alessandro Nivola are the men in her life, but the real love story is between Coco and her own evolving sense of personal style. (PG-13) 105 minutes. In French with English subtitles. (★★★)—Lisa Jensen.
THE DAMNED UNITED Michael Sheen turns in another beautifully calibrated performance as a real-life character from recent British history: legendary 1970s soccer manager Brian Clough, notorious in Britain for his ego, his gift of gab, and his skill in shepherding hopeless Third Division teams from the north of England into stunning and impossible championships. Director Tom Hooper navigates the story’s fragmented time frame with skill and clarity, while scriptwriter Peter Morgan (The Queen; Frost/Nixon) delivers a bracing, near-epic drama of supreme hubris, profound vindication, and dazzling chutzpah. But mostly this witty and merrily profane film rackets along on the charismatic brio of Sheen, who is marvelous fun to watch throughout. (R) 97 minutes. (★★★1/2) —Lisa Jensen
DISNEY’S A CHRISTMAS CAROL It’s hard not to walk away impressed by his imaginative undertaking. Jim Carrey morphs into Charles Dickens’ Scrooge—as well as the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future—in this animated action retelling of the classic tale. Director Robert Zemeckis (The Polar Express) creates wonders here—see the 3D version. Meanwhile Gary Oldman delivers a winning turn as Bob Cratchit (as well as Marley’s Ghost). Colin Firth is nephew Fred; Bob Hoskins is Mr. Fezziwig. Great for the kids, but adults will relish all the savvy technical nuances here. Beyond the retelling of a classic, this is one masterful piece of art. (PG) (★★★1/2)—Greg Archer
THE FOURTH KIND Milla Jovovich stars in this paranormal thriller as an investigator who uncovers a mother lode of videotaped evidence of 40 years of alien abductions in Nome, Alaska. Elias Koteas and Will Patton co-star for director Olatunde Osunsanmi. (PG-13)
THE MEN WHO STARE AT GOATS the good news? This is a dream cast. George Clooney, Jeff Bridges and Kevin Spacey. What can go wrong? Not al lot—but enough. This clever Cold War comedy based on the non-fiction bestseller by Jon Ronson finds Ewan McGregor as a reporter suddenly befriended by a Special Ops agent (Clooney offering a terrific turn). Apparently Clooney’s character is part of an experimental U. S. military unit that’s all about developing psychic warfare. Bridges plays the founder of the unit; Spacey is his nemesis. There are some fine comedic moments here but the film never really shines the way it could. True, the nuttiness of the premise automatically suggests the filmmakers will never really dive deep enough for us to really know the characters, but at the very least, you’d love to walk away caring about what happens to them. That really doesn’t happen (enough) here. Directed by Grant Heslov (R) 93 minutes. (★★1/2)—Greg Archer
MICHAEL JACKSON: THIS IS IT Culled from over a hundred hours of rehearsal footage, this feature film documents the performance the late star was preparing for his comeback world tour. Shot at the Staples Center in LA, between March and June, 2009, the film is directed by Kenny Ortega, who was also directing Jackson’s stage show. Here’s your chnce to see it on a big screen, for a limited two-week engagement. (PG) (HHH1/2)—Greg Archer
PARANORMAL ACTIVITY Buzz is huge and still building over Oren Peli’s no-budget horror thriller, after two sold-out preview weekends as a midnight show at the Del Mar. It’s about a young couple who think their new house is haunted; they set up a video camera in their bedroom to record any malevolent activity—and boy, does it ever. Don’t see it alone.
PIRATE RADIO This latest ensemble comedy from Richard Curtis (Love Actually) harks back to the late ’60s when rock ‘n’ roll was banned from the staid BBC airwaves, forcing an intrepid crew of renegade djs to broadcast The Who, The Stones, Cream, etc, from an oil tanker in the North Sea, just outside British jurisdiction. Real-life pirate radio stations (like Radio Caroline) were a fact of life in ’60s Britain; names have been changed to protect the notorious. Bill Nighy, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Rhys Ifans star. (R) 120 minutes.
PLANET 51 Think of E.T. in reverse in this animated comedy about a U.S. astronaut who lands on a supposedly uninhabited planet only to find it occupied by mild-mannered green-skinned people in a culture much like the American 1950s, for whom he’s the scary “alien” invader. (PG) 91 minutes.
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
2012 You have to wonder about a movie that purports to be about the “survivors” after “the end of the world.” John Cusack, Amanda Peet, Chiwetel Ejiofor, and Thandie Newton are among those caught up in the aftermath of disasters following the end of part (although, evidently not all) of the world. (PG-13) 160 minutes.
THE TWILIGHT SAGA: NEW MOON Oy! Twilight. A brooding teenage gal who should be on some meds falls for an unavailable vamp, all the while avoiding the delicious advances of an available eco-sexual hunky-and-shirtless virgin teen werewolf. Yes. It’s a much more warped “Romeo & Juliet” for the texting generation. I just hate to see the therapy bills in 10 years. Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart get paid millions to moan and groan here but it’s Taylor Lautner that steals the show as a teen werewolf. Taylor meet Fame; Fame, meet Taylor. (And keep your shirt off.) Chris Weitz directs. (PG-13) 130 minutes. (★★)—Greg Archer
WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE Maurice Sendak’s classic children’s book hits the screen, thanks to the noteworthy direction of Spike Jonze (Being John Malkovich)—Dave Eggers is co-scriptwriter. The bottom line? This a film you’ll either truly be captivated by or not all interested in. Jonze creates a powerful, often emotional landscape here, and newcomer Max Records aptly morphs into the troubled protagonist, Max, the little boy who suddenly finds himself in an imaginary—although you could question that— world of “wild things” that soon make him king of their world. But this live-action film works best when it wanders deep in the psychology of dear Max—there are some touching, real moments. Catherine Keener and Mark Ruffalo co-star; Lauren Ambrose, Chris Cooper, James Gandolfini, Catherine O’Hara, and Forest Whitaker offer the character voices. (PG) 101 minutes. (★★★)—Greg Archer