Capsule reviews of recently released films 

OPENING FRIDAY

AVATAR (PG-13) See review.

DID YOU HEAR ABOUT THE MORGANS? (PG-13) Sarah Jessica Parker and Hugh Grant play an estranged couple relocated from New York to small-town Wyoming as part of a witness-protection program. From the writer/director of Music and Lyrics, who also wrote the Miss Congeniality films.

THE MAID (NR) See review.

DULY NOTED

BIZARRO SATURDAY MORNING In the third installment of this series, voice actor and animator C. Martin Croker screens 16 mm gems dating back to the 1930s. Expect a collection of random and rarely seen holiday animation along with some other oddities. $7.50-$9. Thurs., Dec. 17, 9:30 p.m. Sat., Dec. 19, 3 p.m. Plaza Theatre, 1049 Ponce de Leon Ave. 404-873-1939. www.plazaatlanta.com.

CONTINUING

2012 2 stars (PG-13) Solar flares and Mayan mumbo jumbo spell a world-ending catastrophe, even for an upstanding White House science adviser (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a divorced novelist (John Cusack) and the U.S. president (Danny Glover). You can say what you want about director Roland Emmerich: The man’s the John Holmes of disaster porn and delivers jaw-dropping money shots of quakes wrecking Hollywood, Yosemite National Park erupting, a tsunami wiping out Washington, D.C., etc. The trouble is, it’s two and a half hours long and not even as cheesily fun as The Day After Tomorrow— Curt Holman

ANTICHRIST 2 stars (NR) Cross your legs — here comes Lars von Trier's notoriously unpleasant art-house curiosity about a pair of grieving parents (Willem Dafoe and Cannes Film Festival Best Actress winner Charlotte Gainsbourg) whose attempt to work through their feelings at a remote cabin called "Eden" ends in violence. Antichrist proves at once impossible to dismiss or take seriously, particularly given the raw yet focused performances of the two actors and the film's vivid images of nature at its most sinister. Von Trier's themes about misogyny seem deliberately over the top, as if he's commenting on his own reputation as a harsh taskmaster of his actresses. — Holman

ARMORED (PG-13) Hungarian-American Antal Nimród, who directed the fascinating foreign film Kontroll, helms this heist thriller about security guards who decide to knock over one of their armored cars. The cast includes Matt Dillon, Jean Reno and Laurence Fishburne. 

THE BAD LIEUTENANT: PORT OF CALL, NEW ORLEANS 4 stars (R) Nicolas Cage tops his already high standards for over-the-top acting as a New Orleans detective whose back injury leads to Vicodin abuse, lines of cocaine, sexual shakedowns, iguana hallucinations and oh so much more. Werner Herzog, who specializes in films about obsession, doesn’t so much remake Harvey Keitel’s 1992 cult film as half-satirizes it to create a darkly comic portrait of a cop with a disintegrating personality. It’s difficult to take seriously, but Cage and his sparring partners never prove less than entertaining. — Holman 

THE BLIND SIDE 2 stars (PG) A white Memphis socialite (Sandra Bullock) all but adopts a mountainous African-American teen (Quinton Aaron) from an impoverished household in this well-meaning adaptation of Michael Lewis’ nonfiction book on football strategy. Aaron proves too wooden an actor to enliven his many dialogue-free scenes, so the rest of the film overcompensates, particularly in the comic relief involving Bullock’s insufferable son. It’s to Bullock’s credit that she refrains from turning her role into a nouveau riche clown, but the film treats her as if she’s a saint trying to redeem white Southerners everywhere. — Holman 
 
CLOUD NINE (NR) 67-year-old Inge (Ursula Werner) rediscovers her sexuality when she unexpectedly falls in love with 76-year-old Karl (Horst Westfal). This film about elderly love–directed byAndreas Dresen –tells a delicate, passionate and rarely told story.  

EVERYBODY’S FINE 2 stars (PG-13) Robert De Niro plays a retired widower who pays surprise visits to his grown children (including Kate Beckinsale, Sam Rockwell and Drew Barrymore) and gradually ferrets out the secrets they’ve been keeping “for his own good.” This sleepy remake of a 1990 Marcello Mastroianni vehicle of the same name tends to be at once bland and heavy-handed, and De Niro doesn’t really reconcile his role’s contradictions as a remote, demanding Dad prone to chat up his fellow travelers. Apart from a few highlights (including a surreal dream scene), Everybody only aspires to be fine. — Holman 

FANTASTIC MR. FOX 4 stars (PG) Wes Anderson’s loose adaptation of Roald Dahl’s children’s book casts George Clooney as the voice of middle-class Mr. Fox, whose midlife crisis and poultry-stealing habit incurs the wrath of local farms. Despite the inexpressiveness of the stop-motion animated characters, Fantastic Mr. Fox brings charming, idiosyncratic personality to the overpolished genre of contemporary family films. It turns out that Anderson’s trademark obsessions — fussily formal compositions, period pop songs, father-son friction — suit animation better than live-action, and lend Fantastic Mr. Fox humanity and heart, despite its cast of woodland creatures. — Holman 

INVICTUS 2 stars (PG-13) After assuming the presidency of South Africa in 1994, Nelson Mandela (Morgan Freeman) tries to inspire the country’s rugby team to win the World Cup in the hopes of unifying the nation’s racial divide. Damon credibly comports himself as a rugby captain and Freeman offers a warm, sprightly performance as Mandela, but the latter figure becomes only a spectator to the action in the film’s second half, when Invictus turns into a more conventional underdog sports film. It’s an interesting, fact-based story, but one wishes director Clint Eastwood had focused more closely on Mandela, one of the most fascinating global political figures of our time. – Holman

LAW ABIDING CITIZEN 3 stars (R) After home invaders kill his wife and daughter, “tinkerer” Clyde Shelton (Gerard Butler) exacts revenge on Philadelphia’s criminal justice system, particularly district attorney Nick Rice (Jamie Foxx), who cut a deal to give a sleazy killer a light sentence. If you like films with inventive “kills” but are too embarrassed to see theSaw series, Law Abiding Citizen puts a thin veneer of respectability over the bloodshed. It’s hard to care very much about Foxx’s crises of conscience, but Butler makes a fine villain, less like Charles Bronson in Death Wish than The Joker in The Dark Knight— Holman

ME AND ORSON WELLES 4 stars (PG-13) High School Musical heartthrob Zac Efron plays another teen bitten by the theater bug who stumbles into a role in Orson Welles’ famed Julius Caesar in 1937. Christian McKay offers a remarkable interpretation of Welles, a larger-than-life film and radio star (and soon to direct Citizen Kane) whose character flaws, such as alpha-male bullying and serial adultery, seem like a piece of his artistic genius. Efron’s a little too blank for the role as written, but one hopes his young fan base will turn out for the film’s infectious, persuasive love letter to Shakespeare, live theater, the golden age of radio and one of America’s legendary artists. — Holman

THE MEN WHO STARE AT GOATS 2 stars (R) A newspaper reporter (Ewan McGregor) discovers that a would-be Iraq occupation contractor (George Clooney) claims to be a former "psychic soldier" trained by the U.S. Army's First Earth Battalion. Inspired by Jon Ronson's nonfiction book about the First Earth Battalion, The Men Who Stare at Goats combines sight gags about tough soldiers failing to run through walls with heavy-handed satire about the U.S. occupation of Iraq. Clooney gives a witty, poker-faced performance — you're never sure exactly what his character believes — but McGregor seems to have been cast as an inside joke based on the film's discussion of "Jedi warriors." — Holman

THE MESSENGER 3 stars (R) In this uneven but respectful drama, Ben Foster and Woody Harrelson play members of the U.S. Army’s casualty notification team, tasked with informing the next of kind of their loved ones’ deaths in action. Reversing the usual perspective of the “we regret to inform you” scene, The Messenger’s cast proves equal to the fraught emotions at play, particularly Steve Buscemi and Samantha Morton as two bereaved civilians. Director Oren Moverman seems to be a student of Hal Ashby’s excellent 1970s films The Last Detail andComing Home, although the film’s last act, by focusing on the two soldiers’ psychology, slows down to a crawl. — Holman

NINJA ASSASSIN (R) V for Vendetta director James McTeigue and the Wachowski brothers (The Matrix) present this martial arts film about a hitman (Rain) out for revenge. It sounds like the kind of film that should be an adaptation of a video game or a graphic novel or something, but apparently it’s an original work. 

OLD DOGS (PG) Dan (Robin Williams) has been happily divorced for seven years when his ex-wife shows up and reveals that she and Dan have 7-year-old twins. Dan, who knows nothing about family life, recruits his friends Charlie (John Travolta) and Ralph (Seth Green) to help him take care of the kids and learn the true meaning of family.

PARANORMAL ACTIVITY 3 stars (R) Director Oren Peli’s Blair Witch-style horror flick unfolds from the point of view of the video camera of a daytrader (Micah Sloat) who hopes to chronicle the supernatural experiences that bedevil his girlfriend (Katie Featherston). Costing an estimated $15,000, Paranormal’s most skin-crawling moments frequently come from a stationary camera trained on the couple’s bed and the darkened hallway leading to the bedroom. Deeper characterization could have enriched the film, but it’s still an effective horror flick that lives up to the claims of its viral promotional campaign. — Holman 

PIRATE RADIO Originally titled The Boat that Rocked, this British comedy about a fictitious pirate radio station that broadcasts to the United Kingdom from a ship is hitting American shores.

PLANET 51 (PG) In this week’s 3-D computer animated comedy, an astronaut (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson) lands on a planet and discovers a population of green alien suburbanites who view him as an invader.

PRECIOUS: BASED ON THE NOVEL PUSH BY SAPPHIRE 3 stars (R) In Harlem of 1987, Clareece "Precious" Jones (Gabourey Sidibe) suffers enough hardships for several Greek tragedies, including obesity, illiteracy, sexual molestation and a shockingly abusive mother (Mo'Nique). Precious finds self-respect in an alternative school and a classroom full of boisterous women. Subtlety is not in the vocabulary of this film produced by Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry, but the performances of Sidibe, Mo'Nique, Mariah Carey (really) and the supporting cast make good on the film's ambitions. — Holman 

THE PRINCESS AND THE FROG 4 stars (G) In 1920s New Orleans, hardworking waitress Tiana (voiced by Anika Noni Rose) hits a bump on the road to buying her own restaurant when she kisses enchanted Prince-turned-frog Naveen (Bruno Campos) and – oops! – transforms into an amphibian herself. Like its workaholic heroine, The Princess and the Frog tries a little hard and tends to rush through songs and character introductions, so it lacks the ease of classics like Beauty and the Beast. The screwball bickering of hard-headed Tiana and hedonistic Naveen holds few surprises, but it’s still a lovely, tuneful film with gorgeous musical numbers that make the average CGI feature look sterile by comparison. – Holman

RED CLIFF 3 stars (R) Renowned action director John Woo designed this Chinese military epic, set in 208 A.D., to be released in two parts that totaled well over four hours, but the U.S. edit clocks in at only two and a half. The result resembles watching one of the latter Lord of the Rings films without having seen the first — but that’s not so bad, because Woo’s lavish combat scenes give Peter Jackson a run for his money. Tony Leung plays a noble viceroy leading a rebellion against a Napoleonic prime minister, but the spectacular set pieces are the real stars, including some of the most astonishing naval battles ever seen in movies. — Holman

THE ROAD 2 stars (R) A nameless father and son (Viggo Mortensen and Kodi Smit-McPhee, respectively) struggle to survive in the wastelands of post-apocalyptic America in John Hillcoat’s faithful-to-a-fault adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s best-seller. Mortensen and Smit-McPhee capture the anguish of the pair’s attempt to maintain their moral balance amid despair, but the film’s tone proves as monochromatic as its ashy color scheme, which falls short of the images evoked by the book’s stark lyricism. — Holman 

A SERIOUS MAN 4 stars (R) A Jewish physics professor (Michael Stuhlbarg) endures crises of family, career and religion in the Minneapolis suburbs of 1967. The Oscar-winning Coen brothers mine their own childhood for a Kafka-esque, seriocomic spiritual quest in which God, if He even exists, refuses to provide answers to the protagonist’s sufferings. The Coens offer caricatures of most of the Jewish characters, but nevertheless touch on provocative issues of the ineffability of the universe. — Holman

SKIN 2 stars (R) Anthony Fabian’s well-meaning biopic considers the curious case of South Africa’s “white” black woman. Black-completed Sandra Laing (Sophie Okonedo) was born at the height of South Africa’s apartheid system of white parents (Sam Neill and Alice Krige) unaware their own black ancestry. Sandra suffers abuse from both her father and her black husband, neither of whom can accept her for who she is. Despite its fascinating premise, the film seldom manages to get inside Sandra’s head and remains only skin deep. — Holman 

TRANSYLMANIA (R) This is a quirky spoof horror film about college kids who study abroad in Romania for a semester. They quickly realize that if the crazy eastern European party scene doesn’t hurt their grades, the vampires certainly will.

THE TWILIGHT SAGA: NEW MOON 3 stars (PG-13) Chris Weitz has masterfully added depth and excitement to the moody, supernatural franchise. Unlike its predecessor, New Moonbalances the sugary love talk with several fast-paced action sequences. While some of the film's moments sputter and lose momentum, the submersion of Stewart and Lautner into their onscreen personas is captivating and adds believability to their romantic rollercoaster ride. 

UP IN THE AIR 4 stars (R) George Clooney’s corporate hatchet man spends more than 100 days a year on the road and prefers the VIP treatment of air travel and hotels — not to mention consequence-free trysts — to earthbound responsibilities. In Jason Reitman’s witty dramedy, Clooney’s role learns the value of human connections through his sister’s impending wedding, his relationship with a sexy fellow traveler (Vera Farmiga) and his mentorship to a young company woman (Anna Kendrick). Up in the Air captures the zeitgeist of recessionary layoffs and empty corporate culture, and though the narrative arc holds few surprises, it’s a first-class trip all the way. — Holman

WILLIAM KUNTSLER: DISTURBING THE UNIVERSE (NR) William Kuntsler was one of the most famous lawyers of the 20th century. Through representing clients such as the Rev. Marin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X and Abbie Hoffman, he become “the most hated and most loved lawyer in America.” In this film, his daughters Emily and Sarah take a crack at telling the true story of their father’s life.

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  • Re: Fresh air

    • Local band Manchester Orchestra, who provided the soundtrack, probably would have appreciated a shout-out.

    • on June 29, 2016
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