GHOST RIDER: SPIRIT OF VENGEANCE (PG-13) Nicolas Cage returns as Johnny Blaze, the motorcycle-riding, flaming-skull-headed comic book character, in the second installment in the Ghost Rider series. This time Ghost Rider tries to protect a boy from Satan, with the hopes that his infernal curse will be lifted.
A SEPARATION 4 stars (NR) Filmmaker Asghar Farhadi presents no villains in his powerful, wrenching Iranian drama, except possibly for the legal and political system that puts undue pressure on the lives of ordinary citizens. A woman wants to immigrate from Iran to secure a better life for her teenage daughter, but her husband won’t abandon his Alzheimer’s-ridden father, and their separation sets off a chain reaction of mishaps and confrontations. One of the best films of 2011 and a nominee for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. — Curt Holman
THE SECRET LIFE OF ARRIETTY 4 stars (G) This loose adaptation of Mary Norton’s The Borrowers depicts the wary friendship between a sickly boy convalescing in a country house and the Thumbelina-sized “Borrower” who lives with her mom and dad beneath the floorboards. This contemplative fantasy adventure is never more exciting than when Arrietty goes on an expedition to get a cube of sugar in the colossal kitchen (from her point of view). Like nearly all of the animated films from Japan’s Studio Ghibli, it introduces a sharp, self-reliant young heroine while advancing a message of respect for other people and nature. — Holman
THIS MEANS WAR 2 stars (PG-13) : It’s bromance vs. romance when buddy CIA agents (Chris Pine and Tom Hardy) discover they’re both dating the same woman (Reese Witherspoon). : This Means War attempts to combine the light comedy, sexy actors and explosive set pieces of both rom-coms and action movies, but in some kind of mix-up, presents weak jokes, thin clichés and ugly set pieces. Witherspoon and Hardy are better than the material and Pine proves blandly handsome in a Ben Affleck sort of way. Where Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt play battling spy spouses in Mr. and Mrs. Smith, FDR and Tuck’s escalating rivalry could be called Mr. and Mr. Smith. — Holman
BICYCLE DREAMS (NR) This documentary from Stephen Auerbach chronicles the bicyclists competing in the 3,000-mile Race Across America. Wed., Feb. 22, 7 p.m. Plaza Theatre, 1049 Ponce de Leon Ave. 404-873-1939. www.plazaatlanta.com. — Holman
SPLINTERS (NR) This new documentary explores the development of surfing in Papua New Guinea. Tue., Feb. 21, 7 p.m. Buckhead Theatre, 3110 Roswell Rd. splintersmovie.com
SWEET SWEETBACK’S BAADASSSS SONG (1971) (X) Mario Van Peebles directed and starred in this low-budget, groundbreaking drama that proved a major influence on the blaxploitation films of the 1970s. Sat., Feb. 18. 8 p.m. High Museum, Woodruff Arts Center, 1280 Peachtree St. $5-$7. 404-733-4200. www.high.org
T-MEN 4 stars (1947) Directory Anthony Mann and cinematographer John Alton made the first of their five collaborations with this thriller about two U.S. Treasury agents who infiltrate a counterfeiting ring. If a T-Man gets hurt, does he suffer from T-Pain? Painting With Light. Wed., Feb. 22. 7:30 p.m. Emory Cinematheque. 208 White Hall, 301 Dowman Drive, Emory University. Free. filmstudies.emory.edu/home/events/film-series/emory-cinematheque.html — Holman
ALBERT NOBBS 2 stars (R ) Glenn Close has earned an Academy Award Best Actress nomination for playing the title character, a woman passing as male hotel waiter in 19th century Ireland. Close’s 30-year dedication to bring the character to the big screen doesn’t quite transfer to an engrossing story, although Janet McTeer genuinely earns her supporting actress nomination as another cross-dressing woman who brings masculine swagger to her masquerade. — Curt Holman
THE ADVENTURES OF TINTIN 2 stars (PG) Young ace reporter Tintin (voiced by Jamie Bell) races bad guys to uncover the secret of lost pirate treasure, with the assistance of his dog Snowy and a boozing sea captain (Andy Serkis). Director Stephen Spielberg clearly enjoys another chance for Indiana Jones-style derring-do, and delights in motion capture animation’s ability to put his virtual camera anywhere. But for all its cliffhangers, Tintin proves surprisingly dull, and the script doesn’t deliver the laughs you’d expect from three of the cleverest Brits in show business (Stephen Moffat, Edgar Wright, and Joe Cornish). — Curt Holman
ALVIN AND THE CHIPMUNKS: CHIPWRECKED (G) When Dave (will he ever learn?) decides it’s a good idea to take the Chipmunks and their gal pal counterparts, the Chipettes, on a cruise, one-too-many “AAAlvin!”-related disasters leave them “chipwrecked” on an island. Separated from Dave after the accident, with only their wits and pop music to sustain them, the survival skills of the ‘Munks and the ‘Ettes are put to the test.
THE ARTIST 5 stars (PG) In this pitch-perfect recreation of Hollywood’s black-and-white silent films, the effortlessly charming Jean Dujardin plays a swashbuckling matinee idol who stubbornly refuses to change his ways when the film industry switches to sound. Even in the film’s most downbeat moments, director Michel Hazanavicius uses clever visual gags to convey The Artist’s emotional core, while the story’s metaphor for professions transformed by new technology proves enormously relevant in the Internet age. — Holman
BEAUTY AND THE BEAST 3D (1991) 5 stars (G) The tale as old as time jumps on a trend as new as two years ago with this 3D release. It’s still probably the best of the animated films that would fall under the “Disney Princess” umbrella, with great songs from Alan Mencken and the late Howard Ashman. — Holman
BIG MIRACLE (PG) When a family of gray whales become trapped under ice shelf in the Arctic Circle, a small town in Alaska rallies behind a young boy's attempts to save them. A feel-good film starring The Office's Josh Krasinski and Drew Barrymore.
CARNAGE 3 stars (R ) Two pairs of upper middle-class parents (Jodie Foster and John C. Reilly in one corner, Christoph Waltz and Kate Winslet in the other) attempt to come to civilized accord after a playground fracas between their kids. Tempers eventually boil over in the style of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? with Jodie Foster standing out as a mom with an almost masochistic commitment to liberal fairness. Roman Polanski’s adaptation of the stage play God of Carnage doesn’t transcend its source’s theatrical contrivances, but at 79 minutes, doesn’t overstay its welcome. — Curt Holman
CHRONICLE (PG-13) Three high school boys stumble upon a fallen meteor, and in the process gain superhero-like powers. But when one of the teens begins to abuse his new-found powers, his friends must stop him from destroying everything in his way.
CONTRABAND (R ) Mark Wahlberg stars in this action thriller as Chris Farraday, a former smuggler who has retired from the smuggling game and settled down with his wife in New Orleans. But when his brother-in-law (Caleb Landry) screws up a drug deal, Chris must come out of retirement to save him.
THE DESCENDENTS 4 stars (R ) George Clooney positions himself for a Best Actor win as the trustee of a Hawaiian real estate fortune who must step up his parenting skills when a boating accident puts his wife in a coma. Sideways director Alexander Payne would rather jerk tears than draw blood, and the first half relies dismayingly on swearing child and idiot boyfriend jokes. The Descendents hits its stride in its second half, though, when it dispenses with the forced humor and finds the emotional truths in painful situations. — Holman
THE DEVIL INSIDE (R) In this documentary-stylized movie, the main character Isabella travels to Italy when her mother is committed to insane asylum after a botched exorcism in which Isabella's mother murders two priests and a nun. In an attempt to discover if she too will go crazy like her mother, Isabella finds herself in her own exorcism fiasco. -Henry Samuels
DRIVE 4 stars (R ) Ryan Gosling delivers a macho star turn as a taciturn Los Angeles mechanic and stunt driver who moonlights as a wheelman for high-risk heists. Quirky Danish filmmaker Nicolas Winding Refn won Best Director at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival for this terrific, moody film noir update that has all the L.A. alienation of Sofia Coppola’s Somewhere. Gosling, who keeps cool even with patrol cars and police helicopters on his tail, captures the soft-spoken magnetism of Steve McQueen. — Holman
EXTREMELY LOUD AND INCREDIBLY CLOSE 2 stars (PG-13) An obsessive-compulsive boy (Thomas Horn) embarks on a complicated quest across the five boroughs of New York to solve the final game left by his father (Tom Hanks), who died in the fall of the World Trade Center. Max Von Sydow gives a terrific performance as a mute man who becomes the boy’s companion, but overall the film proves too contrived, too sentimental and much too quirky for its own good. — Holman
THE GREY 3 stars (R ) Liam Neeson reaffirms his status as the new Chuck Norris in this icy thriller about oil refinery workers fighting wolves in the Alaskan wilds. Director Joe Carnahan delivers a cracking first hour that features a terrifying plane crash and grisly animal attacks, but the film’s second half slows down considerably to ponder questions of faith and mortality. Neeson’s sorrowful gravity always serves to take the guilt out of his guilty pleasure action films. — Holman
HAYWIRE 2 stars (R ) Mixed martial arts star and American Gladiator Gina Carano makes her film acting debut as Mallory Kane, a covert ops contractor marked for death by her own employers. Director Steven Soderbergh clearly enjoys dabbling in Bourne-style chases and action scenes, and Carano makes an impact as a muscular action heroine, particularly in hand-to-hand fight scenes with Channing Tatum and Michael Fassbender. But Soderbergh and scripter Lem Dobbs seem utterly indifferent to the film’s plot and motivations and leave Carano emotionally stranded. — Holman
THE HELP 2 stars (PG-13) In Jackson, Miss., in the early 1960s, a white would-be journalist (Emma Stone) attempts to enlist African-American housekeepers (Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer) to write about about Southern race relations from their point of view. In adapting the bestselling novel by Atlanta's Kathryn Stockett, writer/director Tate Taylor retains too much of the book's sprawling plot and spends too much time trying to establish The Help as a feel-good Southern comedy-drama like Steel Magnolias. The film conveys the African-American characters' anger and captures plenty of winning details about the South, but uses Bryce Dallas-Howard's manipulative, racist socialite as nearly a scapegoat for Southern racism. — Holman
HUGO 3 stars (PG) An ingenious orphan boy (Asa Butterfield) lives in a 1930s Parisian railway station, where he tries to solves the riddles of a malfunctioning mechanical man and a mysterious toy shop owner (Ben Kingsley). Martin Scorsese experiments with both 3D effects and family-oriented storytelling with mixed results. Hugo succeeds best as a lyrical love letter to the pioneers of cinema, but seems bored by the adventures of the title character and his young friend (Chloe Moretz). — Holman
THE IDES OF MARCH 2 stars (PG-13) Ryan Gosling faces a test of ideals as an ambitious staffer for a presidential candidate (George Clooney) during the Democratic primary. Clooney directed this adaptation of the play Farragut North, which features juicy roles for A-list actors, particularly Philip Seymour Hoffman and Paul Giamatti as rival campaign managers. Unfortunately the plot relies on minor scandals and the temptation of a bland central character, so it feels like an exhibition game between terrific thespians, with nothing at stake. — Curt Holman
THE IRON LADY 2 stars (PG-13) Meryl Streep gives a predictably rich and insightful lead performance in this thin, superficial biopic of Margaret Thatcher, England’s first female prime minister. The Iron Lady seems primarily interested in the doddering, elderly Thatcher who speaks to her deceased husband Denis (an excellent Jim Broadbent), while the wishy-washy script refuses to form an opinion about Thatcher’s controversial politics. — Holman
JOURNEY 2: THE MYSTERIOUS ISLAND 3 stars (PG) In the sequel to Journey to the Center of the Earth, Sean Anderson (Josh Hutcherson) and his mom’s new beau (Dwayne Johnson) pick up a cryptic signal originating from the mysterious island from Jules Verne’s books. Taking full advantage of the technologies at his disposal, director Brad Peyton places his cast upon a fantastic tropical paradise full of amazing creatures and fantastic landscapes. Full of baseline humor, teen angst, and family bonding moments there’s an equal amount of intense chases and thrill rides on both ships and beasts to balance it out. Journey 2 is a definite improvement in the franchise and definitely worth seeing. — Edward Adams
JOYFUL NOISE (PG-13) Queen Latifah and Dolly Parton share the spotlight as members of a small-town members with ambitions to take the choir to a national championship.
MAN ON A LEDGE 2 stars (PG-13) Disgraced cop turned convict Nick Cassidy (Sam Worthingon) threatens to leap from the ledge of a high-rise Manhattan hotel. Is he really suicidal, or is he part of a complicated heist to clear his good name? Like Worthington struggling with his American accent, Man on a Ledge tries to impersonate earlier, better New York caper flicks like Dog Day Afternoon and Inside Man. Danish director Asger Leth builds suspense in the heist scenes, but doesn’t capture the Big Apple’s colorful character, so everything feels overcooked and slightly phony. It ends on a satisfying note, but Man on a Ledge won’t put on the edge of your seat. — Holman
MISSION IMPOSSIBLE: GHOST PROTOCOL 4 stars (PG-13) Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) and his IMF team of superspies must go rogue to catch a nuclear terrorist obsessed with launching World War III. Pixar director Brad Bird makes a confident leap to live-action with this outlandishly exciting spy flick, unified by plausible gadgets and jaw-dropping set pieces, which include Cruise dangling from Dubai’s Burj Khalifa tower, the world’s tallest building, as a sandstorm approaches. Simon Pegg deserves top billing for his hilarious comic relief. — Curt Holman
THE MUPPETS 4 stars (PG) The heyday of “The Muppet Show” long behind them, Kermit and the gang must reunite to put on a show and save their beloved studio from Chris Cooper’s evil oilman. Co-writer/star Jason Segel and a great team of screen artists (including music supervisor Bret McKenzie of Flight of the Conchords) shower love on the original muppets while craft jokes and situations that are genuinely funny, not just corny. Musical numbers ranging from the faux-melodramatic “Muppet or Man” to some jaw-dropping covers provide the most inspired lunacy of 2011. — Holman
MY WEEK WITH MARILYN (R ) Based on two books by British director Colin Clark, My Week With Marilyn recalls the week in 1957 that young Clark spent as set assistant to The Prince and the Showgirl, where he became friends with Marilyn Monroe (Michelle Williams). When Monroe’s new husband Arthur Miller leaves London, will Monroe focus more on work or play? Co-starring Kenneth Branagh as Laurence Oliver.
NEW YEAR’S EVE (PG-13) In what might be the year’s most generic holiday film, a huge ensemble cast of characters (Michelle Pfeiffer, Ashton Kutcher, and Ludacris to name a few) put aside various gripes in an attempt to regain the holiday spirit and enjoy New Year’s Eve in New York. Also, Katherine Heigl delivers a pretty good slap to Bon Jovi’s face.
ONE FOR THE MONEY (PG-13) When newly-divorced Stephanie Plum (Katherine Heigl) loses her job at Macy's, she is left with few options for employment. But when Stephanie finds work at her cousin's bail-bond business, her first assignment is to track down an old lover (Jason O'Mara) who has skipped out on paying bail.
OSCAR NOMINATED SHORT FILMS 3 stars (NR) The animation trumps the live-action in this annual program of the Academy Awards’ freshly-anointed short subjects. Highlights include the whimsical charmer “The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore” and the bittersweet historical sketch “Wild Life.” Ciarin Hinds stars in Terry George’s warm, live-action film “The Orphan,” but the most powerful punch comes from “Raju,” in which a German couple adopts an orphan in Calcutta. — Holman
PARIAH (R) stars Gay Brooklyn high schooler Alike, or “Lee” (Adepero Oduye), passes as straight among her parents (including her deeply religious mother, played by Kim Wayans) until tensions at home and her social life come to a breaking point. Writer-director Dee Rees based her script partly on her own life and it’s easy to believe that she either lived through most of the film’s incidents, or knows people who did. Pariah presents more rounded characters than you find in the urban dramas of Tyler Perry or the more manipulative Spike Lee movies, and the excellent cast comes across as completely credible people. — Holman
PINA 3 stars (PG) German choreographer Pina Bausch died two days before director Wim Wenders was scheduled to begin filming a documentary about her work. The German director and Bausch’s ensemble of dancers completed the film as a deeply-felt posthumous tribute, but if you don’t know much about Bausch, you might wish Pina filled in more autobiographical tales between dancer numbers. Wenders’ ingenious use of 3D, particularly the introductory piece “The Rite of Spring,” superbly does justice to Bausch’s choreography. — Holman
RED TAILS 3 stars (PG-13) Stationed in Italy in 1944, the Tuskegee Airman fight to prove their value to the U.S. Air Force in battling evil German aviators. Self-consciously corny, repetitive and overloaded with subplots, this old-fashioned war movie benefits from spectacular air battles and some interesting details about the strategies of airborne combat. Terence Howard stands out as a tough colonel. — Holman
SAFE HOUSE ( R) When a rouge ex-CIA agent named Tobin Frost (Denzel Washington) is brought to Agent Weston's (Ryan Reynolds) CIA safe house in South Africa, a small militia attacks the safe house in an attempt to capture Frost. The inexperienced Weston is then tasked with protecting Frost, one of the most dangerous men alive.
SHAME 4 stars (NC-17) Steve McQueen directs this austere, compelling drama about a Manhattan sex addict (Michael Fassbender) whose well-maintained life spins out of control when his self-destructive sister (Carey Mulligan) comes for a visit. Fassbender plays a consummate pick-up artist whose life amounts to killing time until the next orgasm, turning a portrait of a glamorous lifestyle into a portrait of addiction. Like Ryan Gosling in Drive, Fassbender gives a magnetic performance with minimal dialogue, although Brandon’s charisma soon grows clouded with self-loathing. — Curt Holman
SHERLOCK HOLMES: GAME OF SHADOWS (PG-13) Director Guy Ritchie directs Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law in another fast-paced, bromantic take on Arthur Conan Doyle's supersleuth. Noomi Rapace of Sweden's Girl With the Dragon Tattoo plays a mystery woman, and Jared Harris of "Mad Men" takes on the iconic role of Holmes' archnemesis, Moriarty.
THE SITTER (R ) With even less to do after receiving OSS (out-of-school suspension for you former high school goody-goodies), lovable slacker Noah (Jonah Hill) begrudgingly takes a babysitting gig for the buxom Mrs. Pedulla’s three asshole children. Rather than miss a party scheduled for the night he has to babysit, Noah brings the kids along for what turns out to be an eventful night.
STAR WARS: THE PHANTOM MENACE 3D (1999) 2 stars (PG) Two Jedi knights (Liam Neeson and Ewan McGregor), a bumbling fish-man and a gifted young boy (Jake Lloyd) aid the deposed queen (Natalie Portman) of a besieged alien planet. The first of George Lucas’ Star Wars prequels unquestionably suffers from wooden performances, terrible dialogue and a misguided comic relief character, but disappointed Star Wars who call it the worst film ever made should really see more movies. On the plus side it offers some subtly ingenious intergalactic skullduggery, some lavishly designed alien worlds and the best light-saber battle in the six-film franchise. — Holman
UNDERWORLD AWAKENING (R ) Kate Beckinsale returns as Selene, the vampire warrior, in the fourth installment in the 'Underworld' series. After being captured and cryogenically frozen for 12 years, Selene wakes up to a world where the tables have turned on her kind, and humans are hunting the vampires.
THE VOW (PG-13) Brain damage from a car accident causes Paige (Rachel McAdams) to lose her memory, including all of the memories of her newlywed husband Leo (Channing Tatum). As Leo tries to win over Paige's heart again, the couple encounters many obstacles in finding the meaning of true love.
WAR HORSE 3 stars (PG-13) A Devon farmboy (Jeremy Irvine) raises a thoroughbred named Joey, only to see it sold to an English cavalry officer and whisked away to World War I No-Man’s-Land. When director Stephen Spielberg focuses on the military the film proves powerful and harrowing, but its scenes of farm life (including the endless first half hour) are clumsy, mawkish, and practically crushed under the weight of a suffocating John Williams score. At least War Horse doesn’t obnoxiously anthropomorphize the title steed.— Holman
WE BOUGHT A ZOO 2 stars (PG-13) In this cutesy-pooh adaptation of Benjamin Mee’s novel, Matt Damon plays a grieving Dad unprepared to face his impulsive purchase of a dilapidated rural zoo. Characters constantly nudge Damon to let the sunshine in and stuff, but director Cameron Crowe drenches the film in warm glows from the outset, along with cute kids, appealing animals, Scarlett Johnansson and baby boomer rock songs. Even Colin Ford’s “troubled” teenager comes across as far more huggable and charismatic than real adolescents wrestling with grief and anger. — Holman
THE WOMAN IN BLACK (PG-13) A young lawyer (Harry Potter’s Daniel Radcliffe) in 19th century London journeys to a remote estate to sort out a will, and encounters all kinds of spooky goings-on. The film is based the same novel by Susan Hill as the popular stage version, which is one of the most spooky plays ever written. Ciarin Hinds and Albert Nobbs Oscar nominee Janet McTeer co-star.
YOUNG GOETHE IN LOVE (NR) Director Philipp Stölzl (North Face) helms a lavish, charming lit-pic about aspiring poet Johann Goethe (Inglourious Basterds’ Alexander Fehling) and his love affair with a young woman betrothed to another man.
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