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RENT PPP

Puccini wrote his opera La Boheme in 1896, and it was exactly 100 years later that Jonathan Larson’s update Rent created seismic waves in the theater world. Rent faithfully follows the story structure of La Boheme, although Larson injected a sense of immediacy by adding AIDS to the equation. Unfolding in the late ‘80s, the story centers on a group of bohemians in New York’s East Village. Mark (Anthony Rapp), a filmmaker, and Roger (Adam Pascal), a songwriter, share a grungy apartment that they’re in danger of losing if they don’t cough up the rent to Benny (Taye Diggs), a former friend who ended up marrying the landlord’s daughter and now acts as a suit-wearing enforcer. Mark and Roger open up their space to their philosophical friend Tom (Jesse L. Martin), who has just entered into a relationship with a street drummer named Angel (Tony Award winner Wilson Jermaine Heredia). Living in the flat downstairs is Mimi (Rosario Dawson), a stripper whose eye is caught by the passive Roger. For his part, Mark has just had his heart broken by kooky performance artist Maureen (Idina Menzel), who left him for another woman, a lawyer named Joanne (Tracie Thoms). If this all sounds like Melrose Place on welfare, the story’s defining characteristic is that half of its leading players are HIV-positive, contracted through either sex or drug use. For a musical, there isn’t much dancing per se, and director Chris Columbus and choreographer Keith Young stage the few numbers competently if not excitingly.

THE ICE HARVEST P1/2

The Ice Harvest is being promoted as this year’s Bad Santa, but it’s just bad, period. Its only merit of distinction belongs to Oliver Platt, who’s aces as the sort of obnoxious, loud-mouth drunk who invariably attaches himself, barnacle-like, to some poor sucker’s arm during a festive holiday party. Otherwise, this merely goes through the motions by displaying all the requisite black humor and hipster stylings without stopping to figure out what generally makes these ingredients work. John Cusack, who’s played this sort of mellow, wise-cracking character many times before, stars as Charlie Arglist, a Wichita lawyer who, along with his partner Vic (Billy Bob Thornton), steals over two million dollars from a local mob boss (Randy Quaid) and then begins to sweat when an ice storm prevents them from skipping town. As Charlie trudges around the city waiting to make his great escape, he repeatedly bumps into two acquaintances: Renata (Connie Nielsen), a strip club owner who suspects Charlie’s up to something, and Pete (Platt), a vulgar souse who (among other grievances) bemoans his marriage to Charlie’s gold-digging ex-wife.

WALK THE LINE PPP

One generally encounters a sense of déjà vu when watching a biopic about a celebrity, since they all trace the expected ups and downs in the most conventional manner possible. Yet a conventional film doesn’t automatically mean a boring one, and for all its familiarity, there’s plenty to like about Walk the Line. First and foremost the film positions itself as a love story, one that finds Cash locating his soulmate in country star June Carter. A vivacious firecracker who takes her time in committing to this troubled individual, June has her own demons to tame, most notably attempting to reconcile her two divorces with her strict Christian upbringing. Just as Ray lived or died on the powerhouse performance of Jamie Foxx, so too does Walk the Line depend on the mesmerizing work by Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon (who both do their own singing) to carry it over the line. Phoenix, all hunched shoulders and slow-burn stares, commands the screen, yet even he’s topped by Witherspoon in her most fully realized performance since Election. Phoenix may provide the movie with its voice, but it’s Witherspoon who delivers its soul.

HARRY POTTER AND THE GOBLET OF FIRE PPP

There’s a reason that this is the first movie in the franchise to earn a PG-13 rating, and it’s not because there’s suddenly heavy petting between Hermione and her best buds Harry and Ron. Instead, director Mike Newell and scripter Steve Kloves, forced to whittle down Rowling’s enormous tome, steadfastly refuse to coddle the youngest audience members, “family film” status be damned. The Triwizard Cup competition, undertaken by Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) and three older students, is fraught with such perils as fire-breathing dragons and piranha-toothed mermaids. A key supporting character -- a likable one, at that -- is unexpectedly killed. And the evil Lord Voldemort, who hasn’t been seen since he murdered Harry’s parents 13 years earlier, finally makes an appearance (Ralph Fiennes is suitably slimy in the role). Yet the series’ greatest strength -- namely, the dead-on portrayals by Radcliffe, Rupert Grint and Emma Watson as Harry, Ron and Hermione -- never fails to deliver, and even an overstuffed plot doesn’t slow down the proceedings as much as convey that there’s much at stake in Harry’s increasingly sinister world.

YOURS, MINE AND OURS P

A descent into the pits of hell disguised as a motion picture, Yours, Mine and Ours is the sort of broad, insincere schmaltz that moviegoers seem to eat up at this time of year. A widower (Dennis Quaid) with eight kids bumps into his former high school sweetheart, now a widow (Rene Russo) with 10 children. On a whim, they decide to get married, but managing a household comprising 18 minors proves to be a formidable challenge.



PRIDE & PREJUDICE



PPP

Did we really need a new film version of Pride & Prejudice? After the ‘90s spate of Jane Austen adaptations -- not to mention the recent P&P updates Bridget Jones’ Diary and Bride & Prejudice -- moviegoers understandably might proceed with caution. Yet all reservations dissipate as soon as the lights go down and this satisfactory version gets underway. Director Joe Wright and screenwriter Deborah Moggach have done an exemplary job of making us care all over again about the plight of the Bennet sisters, five young girls whose busybody mom (Brenda Blethyn) sets about finding them suitable husbands against the backdrop of 19th century England. The oldest daughter Jane (Rosamund Pike) immediately lands a suitor, but the independent Elizabeth (Keira Knightley) finds herself embroiled in a grudge match with the brooding Mr. Darcy (Matthew MacFadyen).

GOOD NIGHT, AND GOOD LUCK PPP1/2

There's David Strathairn as journalist Edward R. Murrow, George Clooney himself as producer Fred Friendly, Frank Langella as CBS head William Paley and Senator Joseph McCarthy as… George W. Bush? Karl Rove? Bill O'Reilly? The film, which marks Clooney's second stint as director (he also co-wrote the script with producer Grant Heslov), looks at an inspiring moment in U.S. history, when Murrow did the unthinkable by standing up to Joe McCarthy, the junior Senator from Wisconsin who was destroying lives left and right by denouncing everyone who didn't subscribe to his petty politics as card-carrying Commie Pinkos. On one fateful evening in 1954, Murrow's TV show See It Now devoted an episode to sticking it to McCarthy. It wasn't long afterward that the Army-McCarthy hearings, featuring Judge Joseph Welch's famous smackdown of the Senator ("Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?"), effectively ended McCarthy's reign of terror. At times, the laser-beam focus on both the setting and the situation at hand makes the film feel as if it's been sealed inside a Zip-Loc bag: There's no mention of Richard Nixon, no Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, no Hollywood Ten, certainly no Ronald Reagan. The movie's genius, however, is in its integration of actual newsreel footage into the fictionalized framework. No actor was hired to play Joe McCarthy because none was needed: The Senator is entirely represented through archival footage seen on TV screens. Apparently, Clooney felt that no performer could have captured this odious individual.

JARHEAD PPP

If anything, this is the pioneer in a new genre: the anti-war-movie movie. With steadfast determination, it refuses to take sides, name names, push agendas or do anything that might potentially inspire the wrath of moviegoers, Oscar voters, Op-Ed editors, war hawks or pacifists. In adapting Anthony Swofford's book, director Sam Mendes (American Beauty) and scripter William Broyles Jr. (Apollo 13) apparently felt that they had to be solely sympathetic to the travails of the foot soldiers -- in this case, the Marine "jarheads" who were dispatched to Iraq back in the early 90s to take part in the Gulf War. In much the same fashion as Stanley Kubrick's brilliant Full Metal Jacket, Jarhead opens stateside, as we see the basic training undergone by "Swoff" (Jake Gyllenhaal) as he attempts to mold himself into a military man of steel. From here, it's off to the Middle East, where these young men -- pumped up by visions of macho exploits, bonding with their phallic rifles and whipped into a feeding frenzy by a screening of Apocalypse Now's Wagnerian interlude -- are ready to kill countless Iraqis for God and country.

GET RICH OR DIE TRYIN’ P1/2

Rapper 50 Cent (or Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson, as he’s billed here) may have set the music world on fire, but as a movie star, he’s as relevant as a dead mike.



DERAILED P

An awful thriller featuring a post-Friends (and post-Brad) Jennifer Aniston attempting to jumpstart a movie career. Mining that fertile Fatal Attraction terrain, this finds unhappily married business executives Charles Schine (Clive Owen) and Lucinda Harris (Aniston) meeting as strangers on a train, engaging in flirtatious banter before deciding to get down and dirty in a seedy hotel room. But they’re suddenly disturbed by Laroche (Vincent Cassel), a French thug who rapes Lucinda (shades of Cassel’s Irreversible), beats Charles and murders the English language.

ZATHURA PP1/2

Children’s author Chris Van Allsburg scored big with his picture book Jumanji, so it’s no surprise that he dipped into the same well for Zathura, which can easily be summed up as “Jumanji in space.” Yet moviegoers who caught the screen version of Jumanji at some point over the past decade might still be interested in checking out the new cinematic take on Zathura, which differs in that it focuses on a strained sibling rivalry, showcases better visual effects, and replaces Jumanji’s Robin Williams with a manic, defective robot (on second thought, that last point might not qualify as a difference).

CHICKEN LITTLE PP

If Chicken Little represents the future of Disney animation, then the sky is indeed falling: This is as far removed from such old-school classics as Pinocchio and Beauty and the Beast as roast duck is from chicken gizzards. To be fair, this toon flick -- a frantic yarn about a diminutive bird (voiced by Zach Braff) whose warnings about an impending alien invasion are ignored by the other anthropomorphic animals in the town of Oakey Oaks -- has its moments. But the central thrust of Chicken Little -- a standard “follow your dream” slog that on a dime turns into War of the Worlds -- is the same sort of hollow experience that has all but drained the traditional toon tale of its potency over the past decade-plus.



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More by Matt Brunson

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    That Kate McKinnon still manages to draw all eyes to her is a testament to her skills – that’s particularly true in Office Christmas Party, since she’s cast as the humorless human resources manager who learns to loosen up before the end credits roll.
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    A film that cuts close to the bone, with gentle humor only occasionally serving as a buffer against the harsh realities of these characters’ lives.
    • Nov 29, 2016
  • Review: Moana
  • Review: Moana

    Again combining a fairly standard morality tale with eye-popping visuals, Disney has another hit in Moana, a rollicking yarn centered on a young lass (voiced by Auli’i Cravalho) coming of age on a South Pacific island.
    • Nov 29, 2016
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