WHAT’S NEW IN THEATERS THIS WEEK
THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY
Stuffed with Hollywood's latest technology, Peter Jackson's "The Lord of the Rings" prelude is some eye candy that truly dazzles and some that utterly distracts, at least in its test-run of 48 frames a second, double the projection rate that has been standard since silent-film days. It's also overstuffed with prologues, flashbacks and long, boring councils among dwarves, wizards and elves as Jackson tries to mine enough story out of J.R.R. Tolkien's mythology to build another trilogy. Remember the interminable false endings of "The Return of the King," the Academy Award-winning finale of Jackson's "Lord of the Rings"? "An Unexpected Journey" has a similar bloat throughout its nearly three hours, in which Tolkien's brisk story of intrepid little hobbit Bilbo Baggins is drawn out and diluted by dispensable trimmings better left for DVD extras. Two more parts are coming, so we won't know how the whole story comes together until the finale arrives in summer 2014. Part one's embellishments may pay off nicely, but right now, "An Unexpected Journey" looks like the start of an unnecessary trilogy better told in one film. Martin Freeman stars as homebody Bilbo, the reluctant recruit of wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) on a quest to retake a dwarf kingdom from a dragon. The 48-frame version offers remarkably lifelike images, but the view is almost too real at times, the crystal pictures bleaching away the painterly quality of traditional film and exposing sets and props as movie fakery. PG-13 for extended sequences of intense fantasy action violence, and frightening images. 169 minutes. Two and a half stars out of four.
HYDE PARK ON HUDSON
Bill Murray as FDR? The casting might sound weird at first. But Murray's subtly charming presence ends up being one of the stronger elements of this otherwise lightweight romance, which depicts one of the most revered United States presidents with all the substance and insight of a lukewarm cup of tea. "Notting Hill" director Roger Michell, working from a script by Richard Nelson, depicts a brief period in the secret affair between President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his fifth cousin, Margaret Suckley — or "Daisy" as she was known. Unflaggingly loyal, earnest and supportive, she's also mousy, quiet and a total bore — a huge waste of the versatile and vibrant talents of Laura Linney. The fact that Linney provides wall-to-wall voiceover doesn't add much, as she's stuck spelling out what should be pretty obvious on screen ("He said I helped him forget the weight of the world," for example.) "Hyde Park on Hudson" focuses specifically on the June 1939 weekend when FDR hosted the King and Queen of England (Samuel West and Olivia Colman) at his family's home in upstate New York, hence the title, just as World War II was about to erupt. Michell awkwardly tries to balance both the farce of cultural clashes and the jealous tension that arises as Daisy begins to understand that she's not the president's only paramour. Olivia Williams brings a no-nonsense presence to her portrayal of Eleanor Roosevelt in a "Rushmore" reunion with Murray that's a total letdown. R for brief sexuality. 95 minutes. One and a half stars out of four.
PLAYING FOR KEEPS
This is supposed to be the time of year when high-quality movies come out, whether they're potential Oscar contenders or crowd-pleasing family fare. So the presence of this flat, hacky, unfunny dreck — the kind of film that ordinarily tries to fly under the radar in January or February but would be torture to sit through in any month — is a total mystery. It is truly baffling that all these talented, acclaimed people actually read this script and then agreed to devote their time to this movie, especially given its uncomfortably flagrant misogynistic streak. Judy Greer, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Uma Thurman couldn't possibly need work this badly. And yet, here they are as soccer moms shamelessly throwing themselves at Gerard Butler and his tousled, manly mane. Butler, still struggling with comedy, stars as George Dryer, a once-great Scottish soccer star who's now divorced and in financial straits. He moves to suburban Virginia to reconnect with his ex-wife (Jessica Biel) and their young son (Noah Lomax). Naturally, a couple of things happen pretty quickly, accompanied by an intrusively jaunty score. First, George gets suckered into coaching his kid's soccer team. Then, the mothers of all the other 9-year-olds start brazenly hitting on him. Director Gabriele Muccino veers wildly between wacky hijinks and facile sentimentality, and Robbie Fox's script doesn't feature a single character who resembles an actual human being. PG-13 for some sexual situations, language and a brief intense image. 105 minutes. Zero stars out of four.
THE CENTRAL PARK FIVE
This documentary takes an emotionally charged subject — the wrongful conviction and imprisonment of five black and Hispanic teenage boys for the rape of a white, female jogger — and makes its case in a straightforward, detached manner. It is thoughtful, educational and understated, perhaps to a fault — tonally, the trademark work of veteran documentarian Ken Burns, who directs, writes and produces this time with daughter Sarah Burns, who wrote a book about the crime, and her husband, David McMahon. It efficiently depicts, but doesn't get caught up in, the hysteria of the place and time: a racially and socioeconomically divided New York City in April 1989, when it was rotting with crack cocaine, AIDS and violent crime but also gleaming with the conspicuous consumption of the era. The late-night attack on jogger Trisha Meili — then a 28-year-old Wall Street investment banker who's now an author and motivational speaker — became a symbol of this chasm and everything that seemed wrong with society. Not rated but contains language and graphic, violent details. 119 minutes. Three stars out of four.
KILLING THEM SOFTLY
Writer-director Andrew Dominik's film is an incredibly stylish genre exercise set in the world of mobsters, junkies and lowlifes, but it's also trying incredibly hard to be About Something. Not content merely to be profane, abrasive and occasionally, darkly amusing, it also wants to be relevant. And so Dominik has taken the 1974 crime novel "Cogan's Trade" by George V. Higgins and set it in the days before the 2008 presidential election, just as the U.S. economy is in the midst of catastrophic collapse. The film's best scenes are the ones Brad Pitt shares with James Gandolfini as a brazen but insecure hit man. R for violence, sexual references, pervasive language and some drug use. 97 minutes. Two stars out of four.
WHAT'S IN THEATERS THIS WEEK
The man who made "Psycho" was no lightweight, though he kind of comes off that way in this portrait of Alfred Hitchcock. Starring Anthony Hopkins as Hitchcock and Helen Mirren as his wife and collaborator, Alma, the film puts a featherlight yet entertaining touch on the behind-the-scenes struggle to make the mother of all slasher films. As Alma says at one point, even "Psycho," after all, was just a movie. With Jessica Biel, Danny Huston and Toni Collette. PG-13 for some violent images, sexual content and thematic material. 98 minutes. Two and a half stars out of four.
LIFE OF PI
Author Yann Martel's tale of a shipwrecked youth cast adrift on a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger is one of those lyrical, internalized novels that should have no business working on the screen. Quite possibly, it wouldn't have worked if anyone but Ang Lee had adapted it. Lee ("Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," ''Brokeback Mountain") has crafted one of the finest entries in his eclectic resume with this gorgeous, ruminative film that is soulfully, provocatively entertaining. The computer-animated tiger is remarkably lifelike, seamlessly blended into the live action. And as in Martin Scorsese's "Hugo," Lee's 3-D images are tantalizing and immersive, pulling viewers deeper into Pi's world so that the illusion of depth becomes essential to the story. PG for emotional thematic content throughout, and some scary action sequences and peril. 126 minutes. Three and a half stars out of four.
The army invading the United States in this ill-advised remake of the campy 1984 original was changed in post-production from Chinese to North Korean. With a few snips here, a few re-dubs there, the filmmakers re-edited and re-shot, fearful of offending China and its increasingly important moviegoing market. The original, of course, was made at the height of Cold War paranoia and imagined a parachuting Soviet Union on American soil, with the likes of Patrick Swayze and Charlie Sheen (yes, truly the greatest generation) waging guerrilla warfare. Again, in director Dan Bradley's remake, America turns to its high school football players in its darkest time of need. PG-13 for sequences of intense war violence and action, and for language. 93 minutes. One star out of four.
RUST AND BONE
Merely the premise sounds uncomfortably maudlin: A wayward single father and part-time fighter falls into an unexpected romance with a beautiful whale trainer who's just lost both her legs below the knee in a freak accident. Both must undergo drastic transformations that render them as vulnerable as newborn babies. R for strong sexual content, brief graphic nudity, some violence and language. In French with English subtitles. 120 minutes. Three stars out of four.
SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK
From mental illness and adultery to football obsession and competitive dance, David O. Russell's comic drama follows a wily and winding path that consistently defies expectations. He's pulled off a tricky feat here, finding just the right tone in crafting a romantic comedy whose sweethearts suffer from bipolar disorder and depression. R for language and some sexual content/nudity. 122 minutes. Three and a half stars out of four.
All the world's a stage, very literally, in Joe Wright's wildly theatrical adaptation of "Anna Karenina." If you thought the director's five-and-a-half-minute tracking shot in "Atonement" was show-offy, you ain't seen nothing yet. Wright and screenwriter Tom Stoppard ("Shakespeare in Love") have taken Leo Tolstoy's literary behemoth about love, betrayal and death among the elite in imperial Russia and boldly set it almost entirely within a decaying theater.But wondrous as all this artifice is, it's also a huge distraction. R for some sexuality and violence. 130 minutes. Two and a half stars out of four.
THE TWILIGHT SAGA: BREAKING DAWN - PART 2
Finally — finally! — the "Twilight" franchise embraces its own innate absurdity with this gleefully over-the-top conclusion. This is by far the best film in the series. This does not necessarily mean it's good. But as it reaches its prolonged and wildly violent crescendo, it's at least entertaining in a totally nutso way. Now, Bill Condon (who also directed last year's "Breaking Dawn — Part 1") finally lets his freak flag fly. PG-13 for sequences of violence including disturbing images, some sensuality and partial nudity. 115 minutes. Three stars out of four.
For anyone who cringed just a little while watching the trailer and worried that this might be a near-parody of a Steven Spielberg film, with its heartfelt proclamations, sentimental tones and inspiring John Williams score, fret not. The movie itself is actually a lot more reserved than that — more a wonky, nuts-and-bolts lesson about the way political machinery operates than a sweeping historical epic that tries to encapsulate the entirety of the revered 16th president's life. That was a smart move on the part of Spielberg and Pulitzer prize-winning screenwriter Tony Kushner. PG-13 for an intense scene of war violence, some images of carnage and brief strong language. 150 minutes. Three stars out of four.
To borrow a line from Depeche Mode, death is everywhere. James Bond's mortality has never been in such prominent focus, but the demise of the entire British spy game as we know it seems imminent, as well. Still, this 23rd entry in the enduring James Bond franchise is no downer. Far from it: Simultaneously thrilling and meaty, this is easily one of the best entries ever in the 50-year, 23-film series, led once again by an actor who's the best Bond yet in Daniel Craig. So many of the elements you want to see in a Bond film exist here: the car, the tuxedo, the martini, the exotic locations filled with gorgeous women. PG-13 for intense violent sequences throughout, some sexuality, language and smoking. 143 minutes. Four stars out of four.