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Film, Times & Events: Week of Jan. 23

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Check out the movies playing around town.
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New This Week

I, FRANKENSTEIN Aaron Eckhart stars as Frankenstein's creature, still alive in the modern world and caught in the crossfire in a war between two immortal, supernatural clans. Based on the graphic novel by Kevin Grevioux, who also wrote the story that launched the Underworld movie franchise. Bill Nighy and Miranda Otto co-star for screenwriter-turned-director Stuart Beattie, who co-wrote the script with Grevioux. (PG-13) 93 minutes. Starts Friday.

THE INVISIBLE WOMAN Ralph Fiennes directs this tale which is, perhaps, one of the most compelling period pieces on Victorian novelist Charles Dickens (with Fiennes in the role). But the biographical period drama centers more on the character of Nelly Ternan, a young English stage actress who met Dickens in the height of his career. Terman eventually became Dickens’ secret mistress for the rest of his life. Watch how well Felicity Jones (Like Crazy; The Tempest) handles her role as the naive and often emotionally destaught Nelly. She’s a gem to witness on screen. Kristin Scott Thomas and Tom Hollander (as Wilkie Collins) co-star. (R) 111 minutes. Starts Friday. (★★★1/2) —Greg Archer


Film Events

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: PULP FICTION Entertaining performances from John Travolta, Samuel L. Jackson, Tim Roth, Uma Thurman and Bruce Willis highlight this wildly overrated 1994 exercise in flashy, brutal style from Quentin Tarantino, the would-be auteur whose entire perspective on life comes from older, better movies. (R) 154 minutes. (★★1/2)—Lisa Jensen. Fri-Sat midnight only. At the Del Mar.


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Now Playing

AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts command the screen in Tracy Letts’ screen adaptation of his Pulitzer Prize-winning drama. The all-star cast—Sam Shepard, Chris Cooper, Ewan McGregor, Margo Martindale, Juliette Lewis, Dermot Mulroney—come along for the ride and offer some memorable moments to this dysfunctional family outing set in rural Oklahoma where the Weston clan has gathered after the disappearance of its family patriarch. As pill-popping, chain-smoking Violet, Streep chews the scenery like nobody else. Roberts turns in the best performance of her career. Still, there’s a tendency to feel assualted by the rolling waves of dysfunction here rather feeling enough empathy for it. True, few screen adaptations of brilliant stage works transition well onto the screen, but in Letts’ brooding theatrical setting, he allowed for the tempo to build. Director John Wells may have had too much of a hands-off approach on his actors here. Regardless, the film packs a punch and Streep, once again, proves she can disappear into any character. (R) 130 minutes. (★★★)—Greg Archer.

AMERICAN HUSTLE This film may very well win Best Picture. True, other pictures may be more deserving, but director David O. Russell’s provocative outing just has that Oscar feel to it. For one thing, he reunites with some of the actors he's directed to Oscars (and Oscar noms for that matter) in a true-crime story set in 1970s New Jersey. Behild Christian Bale, who loses himself yet again in a role that finds him playing  a slick con man who is forced to team up with an ego-driven, entirely too anxious FBI hotshot played by Bradley Cooper. The goal: to pierce the super fab world of the mob elite. Jennifer Lawrence, Amy Adams, and Jeremy Renner co-star but look for Lawrence to capture Oscar buzz. (R) 137 minutes. (★★★1/2)—Greg Archer

ANCHORMAN 2: THE LEGEND CONTINUES Sure, escaping to the movies is fun, but it would have been nice—if not fair to the audience—to pepper this forced tour du force with a little bit of intelligence. Will Farrell returns as mustachioed San Diego TV newsman Ron Burgundy and his band of misfites are in tow: Paul Rudd, Steve Carrell, and David Koechner co-star. Christina Applegate is also on the bill for director Adam McKay. (PG-13) 119 minutes. (★1/2)—Greg Archer

DALLAS BUYERS CLUB Golden Globe-winner Matthew McConaughey scores as a brash, profane antihero in the true story of Ron Woodroof. A coke-snorting, womanizing, blue-collar Texan, diagnosed as HIV-positive in the 1980s and given 30 days to live, he defied his death his sentence for years to become a pioneer in making "unapproved" drugs from out of the country available to his local AIDS community. Jean-Marc Vallée's film unspools as a tale of bizarre alliances and unexpected heroism as pugnacious, yet affecting as its protagonist. Jared Leto won a Supporting Actor Golden Globe as a feisty transvestite who becomes Woodroof's business partner. (R) 117 minutes. (★★★)—Lisa Jensen.

DEVIL'S DUE  Another entry in the home-movie spookfest genre, this horror thriller concerns a young newlywed couple dealing with an unexpectedly early pregnancy—soon after a honeymoon during which they lost track of what happened during one mysterious night. Allison Miller and Zach Gilford star for directors Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett. (R) 89 minutes.

47 RONIN 18th Century Japan is the setting for this latest retelling of a classic samurai story (Japan's national folk epic) about a blood feud between rival clans that leas to a meticulously planned act of revenge. Keanu Reeves, Hiroyuki Sanada, and Tadanobu Asano star for directior Carl Rinsch. (PG-13) 119 minutes.

FROZEN This Nordic entry in the animated "Disney Princess" franchise (loosely inspired by Hans Christian Andersen's The Snow Queen) delivers two princesses, one handsome prince, and a roguish, wisecracking commoner. How these couples do (or do not) match up is part of the fun in this  surprising scenario cooked by scriptwriter Jennifer Lee and her co-director Buck Jones. (PG) 108 minutes.  (★★★)—Lisa Jensen.

GRAVITY A couple of astronauts on a routine mission outside their spacecraft suddenly find themselves adrift in space in this smart, elegantly composed and utterly gripping edge-of-your-seat thriller from filmmaker Alfonso Cuarón. Neither sci-fi nor space opera—and far more than simply a star vehicle for appealing headliners Sandra Bullock and George Clooney—it's more like a space procedural in which ordinary people pit their own human ingenuity against ever more incredible and daunting odds. (PG-13) 90 minutes. (★★★★)—Lisa Jensen.

HER Set in the near future, Joaquin Phoenix upgrades his personally stylized OS (Operating System), voiced by Scarlett Johansson, and, over time, the two develop an intimacy that neither saw coming. The Os is even given a name—Samantha. Watch how well director Spike Jonze, who also penned the tale, paces this film and allows for some of the deeper, rich and complex issues of “relationship” to play themselves out. Amy Adams, who just nabbed a Golden Globe for American Hustle, co-stars. But it’s Phoenix who stands out. 126 minutes. (★★★1/2)—Greg Archer.

THE HOBBIT: THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG Peter Jackson's epic trilogy based on J. R. R. Tolkien's fantasy novel continues—and, it’s an improvement from last year’s initial outing. Martin Freeman returns as Hobbit Bilbo Baggins, who’s off on another part of his journey with the Gandalf (Ian McKellan) and a gaggle of warrior Dwarves, hoping to retrieve their kingdom from the clutches of an evil dragon. (PG-13) 161 minutes. (★★★)—Greg Archer

THE HUNGER GAMES: CATCHING FIRE Round Two in this popular franchise takes a while to pack a punch—emotional and otherwise—but when it does, it’s downright invigorating. While the first Hunger Games boasted a bit more action and suspense, here, director Francis Lawrence dips a little more into the pyschological ripple effects of what dear Katniss Everdeen is goind through. Co-stars Chris Hemsworth, Josh Hutcherson and Woody Harrelson once again stand out.  (PG-13) 146 minutes. (HHH)—Greg Archer.

INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS Positively teeming with yearning, vintage-sounding music that might very plausibly have come from that era, Joel and Ethan Coen's musical drama follows a down-on-his-luck, would-be folk singer struggling against all odds to get a foothold in the Greenwich Village folk music scene ca. 1961. Oscar Isaac brings fleeting moments of poignancy and tenderness to the title role, and he's a terrific singer, but the character is written as all angsty exterior with no emotional arc. But the movie comes alive in the music (kudos to music producer T Bone Burnett), and the depiction of the era, moments to remember in an ambitious, but uneven film. (R) 105 minutes. (HHH)—Lisa Jensen.

JACK RYAN: SHADOW RECRUIT Reviewed this issue. (PG-13) 105 minutes. ★ ★ ★)—Lisa Jensen.

THE LEGEND OF HERCULES Kellan Lutz stars in the origin story of the legendary hero. Fathered by Zeus and sold into slavery by his stepfather, he battles his way through many trials to claim his destiny. Scott Adkins and Gaia Weiss co-star. Action director Renny Harlin takes the helm. (PG-13)

LONE SURVIVOR Mark Wahlberg stars in this military action thriller about four Navy SEALS whose covert mission against the Taliban goes awry when they are ambushed in the Hindu Kush region of Afghanistan. Taylor Kitsch, Emile Hirsch, Ben Foster, and Eric Bana co-star for director Peter Berg. (R)

NEBRASKA A marvelous turn for Bruce Dern, who won the Best Actor award at Cannes for his role as a cranky gent who forces his son (Will Forte in surprisingly good role) along on a road trip to claim a million-dollar prize the he insists he's won from Publishers' Clearinghouse. Watch how wonderfully Dern disappears into this role, which assures him an Oscar nod. And relish how well Dern and Forte play off of each other. Shot in shot in black-and-white by Alexander Payne (The Descendants; Sideways) it stands out as one of the year’s best. (R) 115 minutes. (★★★1/2)—Greg Archer

THE NUT JOB A squirrel ousted from his park habitat and forced to survive on his own in the city rallies his buddies in a plot to rob a nut shop in this animated 3D family comedy. Will Arnett and Katherine Heigl head the voice cast. Pete Lepeniotis directs. (PG) 86 minutes.

PARANORMAL ACTIVITY: THE MARKED ONES More demonic entities wreak havoc on surviving members of the hidden camera horror franchise in this fifth installment of the series. Molly Ephraim (the daughter from Paranormal Activity 2), Andrew Jacobs, Richard Cabral, and Crystal Santos star, with longtime franchise scriptwriter Christopher Landon at the helm. (R) 84 minutes.

PHILOMENA Steve Coogan plays a jaded, unemployed journalist opposite the divine Judi Dench in a story based on the real-life events of a British woan searching for the son she was forced to give up when she was very young. The duo create some wonderful chemistry here in a tale that also manages to offer enough surprises to keep you both invested in the journey and each of the characters’ emotional evolution. There’s a lovely bit of serendipity in the real-life tale and director Stephen Frears does a nice job weaving those elements in without provoking a major roll of the eyes. And Dench can do no wrong. (PG-13) 98 minutes. (★★★)—Greg Archer

RIDE ALONG It's Training Day with laughs with Kevin Hart as a security guard-turned police recruit spending 24 hours in the passenger seat with tough cop Ice Cube, patrolling the streets of Atlanta, to prove that he's worthy to marry the veteran cop's sister (Tika Sumpter). John Leguizamo and Laurence Fishburne co-star. Tim Story (Think Like A Man) directs. (PG-13)

SAVING MR. BANKS What a joy this film is. Tom Hanks as Walt Disney? It works. And Emma Thompson as the prickly British novelist P.L. Travers, who visits Los Angeles, all the while scoffing that Disney is coaxing her into selling him the rights to her childrens' book series featuring Mary Poppins? All the better. It’s nice to see Thompson back in a headlining role. But take note: this is more than the backstory of how Mary Poppins became a motion picture. It’s actually the story one woman coming to terms with her troubled past. And that elevates this tale beyond our expectations. True, it smacks of Disney-made, but don’t let that deter you. Colin Farrell, Ruth Wilson, Paul Giamatti, and Jason Schwarztman co-star for director John Lee Hancock (The Blind Side).(PG-13) 125 minutes. ★ ★ ★ —Greg Archer

12 YEARS A SLAVE The mighty Chiwetel Ejiofor gives a haunting, nuanced, electrifying performance in filmmaker Steve McQueen's blistering portrait of what slavery was like in the pre-Civil War American South. Based on the true story of Solomon Northrup, a free black New Yorker abducted and sold into slavery in 1841, the film shows with heartbreaking precision how the loss of common humanity, even more than chains and beatings, is the true cost of slavery. McQueen has an unerring eye for the indelible image, both horrific and poetic, and the excellent supporting cast includes Benedict Cumberbatch as a relatively benign but ineffectual slave owner, Michael Fassbender in a bravura, willies-inducing turn as a belligerent psycho of a plantation owner, and the compelling Lupita Nyong'o as the unfortunate object of his desire. (R) 134 minutes. (★★★1/2)—Lisa Jensen. 

THE WOLF OF WALL STREET Leonardo DiCaprio teams up with director Martin Scorsese in this tale, based on real-life endeavors. DiCaprio plays hotshot stockbroker Jordan Belfort, whose unlikely success on Wall Street in the mid-1990s comes crashing down when the Feds expose his securities scheme as a fraud. Matthew McConaughey, Jonah Hill, Margot Robbie, and Jean Dujardin come along for the ride. The bad news? It’s just hard to warm up to this tale of excess. It’s even more challenging to care much about the outcome for DiCaprio’s character. That said, it seems that director, star and screenwriter Terence Winter are asking quite a bit from their audience. True, not all stories that emerge out of Hollywood are feel-good tales, but there must have been a way to tweak this outing just enough to evoke something positive or thought-provoking. What we’re left with, really, is how to best measure acting talent and direction. Those two elements seem to save the film from completely plummeting like a bad stock market share..(R) 179 minutes. (★★) —Greg Archer

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