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SYRIANA PPP

George Clooney’s Good Night, and Good Luck is only considered a hit because it cost a mere $7 million to produce and largely played the art-house circuit -- in the mainstream world, its $14 million gross would have relegated it to turkey status. Syriana, on the other hand, cost substantially more, and a box office fallout might put the kibosh on socially relevant films for a while and send its stars, Clooney and Matt Damon, crawling back to sign up for an Ocean’s Thirteen. But Syriana is exactly the type of movie that elevates its medium. Writer-director Stephen Gaghan, who earned the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar for Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic, again weaves together a head-spinning mix of people, places and incidents, though the end result isn’t quite as fluid this time around. The first portion of Syriana is incredibly dense, and it takes a good while to locate one’s bearings in relation to the various players and what’s happening to them. Yet as the movie progresses, plotlines come into focus. Bob Barnes (Clooney) is a grizzled CIA field operative who’s stunned when his years of service and devotion count for naught once his superiors decide it’s in their best interest to betray him. Bryan Woodman (Damon) is an energy analyst whose personal tragedy serves as a springboard for close ties with a prominent member of a Middle Eastern dynasty. Bennett Holiday (Jeffrey Wright) is an opportunistic lawyer who finds himself navigating the choppy waters of a merger between two oil company behemoths hoping to gorge themselves on lucrative deals certain to harm everyone else. Syriana offers little hope and no answers, catering instead to the substantial number of Americans who feel that the bad guys -- chiefly, Big Business and Big Government -- have already won, and there’s not a damn thing we ordinary citizens can do about it. For those who already believe this, the movie’s a well-executed downer. For those seeking to educate themselves about the ways of the world, the movie’s a must-see.

AEON FLUX P1/2

While director Karyn Kusama probably deserves a lavish Hollywood mansion and a three-picture deal as much as the next filmmaker, she’s one person whose career might have benefited more had she stayed hungry. Her low-budget debut feature, 2000’s Girlfight, was an indie knockout, signaling her arrival as a moviemaker with grit, determination and something to say. Five years later, Kusama’s back with her sophomore effort, and it’s dispiriting to see that it’s a big-budget production deemed so awful by its own studio that it wasn’t even screened in advance for critics. Truthfully, it’s not that wretched -- I’ve seen at least two dozen worst films this year that were screened for the press -- but in any case, Aeon Flux reveals either that Kusama has willingly squandered her talents for the sake of a fat paycheck or that said talent pretty much dried up after Girlfight hit theaters. Based on an animated series created for MTV a decade ago, Aeon Flux opens with a title card informing us that in the year 2011, approximately 99 percent of the world’s population was wiped out by a virus. Flash forward to 2415, where the descendants of the original survivors continue to live in Bregna, the only established city on the entire planet. Fed up with the fascistic methods of the ruling class, a band of revolutionaries known as the Monicans seeks to topple the government; they order their best agent, Aeon Flux (Charlize Theron), to assassinate leader Trevor Goodchild (Martin Csokas), but as Aeon attempts to carry out her assignment, she realizes that the situation isn’t as clearly defined as previously thought. An impersonal slab of sci-fi sameness, Aeon Flux wears its lethargy as a badge of honor, with Kusama’s draggy direction and Theron’s monotonous performance up front and center in virtually every scene.

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

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. 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.

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.

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

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

This film, which marks Clooney's second stint as director, looks at an inspiring moment in U.S. history, when broadcaster Edward R. Murrow did the unthinkable by standing up to Joe McCarthy, the junior Senator from Wisconsin who destroyed lives by denouncing everyone who didn't subscribe to his petty politics. 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.

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 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.

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.”

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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  • Review: Office Christmas Party

    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.
    • Dec 6, 2016
  • Review: Manchester By The Sea
  • Review: Manchester By The Sea

    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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