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**1/2

Let's face it: 2013 has so far been a brutal year for multiplex action stars. Jason Statham's Parker has grossed $17 million, Arnold Schwarzenegger's The Last Stand has earned $11 million and Sylvester Stallone's Bullet to the Head has scraped together an especially anemic $9 million. (I'd like to think the only reason Bruce Willis' awful A Good Day to Die Hard has earned a respectable $40 million to date is because it's a franchise sequel; without John McClane as the hero, I expect it would have fared much worse.)

Now Dwayne Johnson enters the fray with Snitch, and what's interesting to note is that, while his fellow macho men are content to coast, the artist formerly known as The Rock actually attempts to do something different, appearing in a movie that, contrary to both expectations and popular belief, isn't an action flick as much as a thoughtful drama peppered with a couple of requisite car chases and shootouts.

Snitch is one of those movies that opens with a statement declaring it's based on a true story – given the increased frequency of this claim combined with the laxity with which it's now employed, I expect to see such a header at the start of Jack the Giant Slayer and Iron Man 3, among other upcoming titles. At any rate, it's the closing comment that resonates more deeply, the widely acknowledged one that nonviolent, first–time drug offenders generally face more prison time than murderers and rapists. Snitch analyzes that dire problem in the context of a drama about a father who makes Herculean sacrifices for the sake of his son.

Jason (Rafi Gavron) is a college–bound kid who initially refuses but then reluctantly agrees to hold a shipment of ecstasy for his drug–dealing friend. But when the shipment arrives at his door, the Feds swoop in and arrest him; matters become even worse when, for the sake of a reduced sentence, his pal fingers him as the real drug dealer, a lie that leads to a mandatory 10–year sentence alongside hardened criminals. His dad John (Johnson), a respected business owner, finds that the prosecuting attorney (Susan Sarandon) won't budge in the matter, so he offers her a deal: In exchange for reducing Jason's sentence, John will go undercover and nab a real drug lord or two.

Johnson isn't exactly our most versatile movie star (although he was awfully funny in the otherwise dismal Get Shorty sequel, Be Cool), but he does possess charisma to burn, and it's this natural screen presence that allows us to accept him in this role. His character's sense of frustration and outrage over what's happening to his son is palpable, and this sets up some interesting encounters opposite the ambitious d.a., a conscientious field agent (Barry Pepper, hiding underneath a biker–ready beard) and an ex–con (Jon Bernthal) who tries to help John while keeping his own record clean.

I certainly don't want to oversell the film: The direction by Ric Roman Waugh is more workmanlike than inspired, and the third act promises more thrills than it actually delivers (John states that he has this great plan to make everything right, but it proves to be about as complex as boiling water). Still, moviegoers finding themselves between The Rock and a bad choice – say, the aforementioned Die Hard debacle – might agree that the auditorium showing Snitch isn't a hard place to be.

A Good Day to Die Hard

*

It's been exactly a quarter–century since Bruce Willis became a movie star with the action classic Die Hard, but while 2013 finds the actor headlining the fifth film in the never–say–die series, it's clear that A Good Day to Die Hard does his image — and his iconic character — no favors. John McClane, once an exciting screen presence, is now simply an old grouch who's as dull and predictable as a presidential candidate in debate mode. The movie poster might as well read, "John McClane IS John McCain," given that this dud isn't likely to raise anyone's pulse.

The first Die Hard entry set outside the U.S., this finds McClane heading to Russia to check on his estranged son Jack (Jai Courtney), who isn't the druggie burnout he expected but rather a covert agent for the CIA. Jack's mission is to extract a political prisoner (the fine German actor Sebastian Koch, almost unrecognizable under a scruffy beard), which becomes a mission impossible once Pappy McClane arrives on the scene and screws everything up. But no worries: Big Daddy has plenty of time to make amends, as he proceeds to blow away Russkies, save his son's skin and rack up an obscene amount of collateral damage.

The father–son/secret agent angle has already been recently used by Willis himself in last year's The Cold Light of Day, a movie this one resembles in its dogged devotion to dimness. The story even pays a visit to Chernobyl, where the McClane boys take a bath in radioactive water, make bonding cracks about John's (ergo, Bruce's) baldness and bump into the tourists from last year's horror flick Chernobyl Diaries. Just kidding on that last one; instead, they bump into scores of villains, one of whom suffers (spoiler, but who really gives a damn?) death–by–whirling–helicopter–blade. A unique cinematic demise? Not really: A character suffered the exact same fate in 1991's execrable The Last Boy Scout, a film which — oh, yeah — also starred Bruce Willis.

John McClane's signature catchphrase "Yippee ki–yay" is uttered, though he's more prone this time around to channeling City Slickers' Billy Crystal by shouting, "I'm on vacation!" — a line that isn't especially witty (or accurate) the first time he says it and certainly has worn out its welcome by the time he amends it to "I'm on fucking vacation!"

Unbelievably, this great character has made a complete transformation from a likable, sympathetic Everyman in 1988 to an arrogant, insufferable jerk in 2013. All traces of personality have disappeared, leaving only a plastic action figure merely going through the motions. Whereas McClane employed ingenuity in at least the first two Die Hard films, his MO here is to mainly aim and shoot. He even gets to be the Ugly American, yelling at an understandably irate driver (whose car has been hit by McClane), "Do I look like I speak your fucking language?" before punching him. The role has been so thoroughly siphoned of individuality and personality than if there's another sequel, Willis doesn't even have to play McClane: The producers can nab Schwarzenegger, Stallone, Bieber or anybody else their avaricious little hearts desire.

AMOUR

***

It won the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival. It has earned Oscar nominations in five major–league categories, including Best Picture. Its writer–director and lead actress have each won or been nominated for over a dozen international awards. Clearly, Amour, Michael Haneke and Emmanuelle Riva don't really need me to additionally sing their praises (although praise is indeed all I have), so let's discuss Jean–Louis Trintignant for a moment.

Julie Christie earned reams of awards for her portrayal of a woman suffering from Alzheimer's in 2006's Away from Her, yet for me, the best performance in that film was given by the largely overlooked Gordon Pinsent as her loving husband, a good man reacting to his wife's condition with a believable mix of empathy, kindness and helpless frustration. In Amour, a bracing, brutal study of an octogenarian couple and the final snatch of time they have together, Trintignant plays a comparable role to that of Pinsent.

Riva's character, a former music teacher named Anne, has started to wear down, more in the physical sense but a bit in the mental department as well. Her husband Georges does what he can to keep her comfortable – and, as her body continues to deteriorate, he also tries to keep her alive, refusing to allow her to give up on him, on herself or on the life they built together.

Riva's performance is indeed amazing – watching Anne's fierce pride attempt to claw its way through the vagaries of her body is heartbreaking – but no less impressive is the turn by Trintignant. Georges brooks no interference from outsiders – whether it's the caregiver who insultingly treats Anne like an infant or his own well–meaning daughter (Isabelle Huppert) – and the actor applies a testiness to his portrayal that provides it with additional heft.

Because this is a Haneke production, the man behind Cache and Funny Games doesn't forsake his usual abstractions (the ending has already been interpreted in several different ways, with no theory rising above the rest), and there's also a slight yet familiar chill that wafts through the entire movie. Yet Haneke exhibits nothing but warmth and devotion toward his central couple, and his movie ends up serving as a testimonial not only to these universal characters but also to the two French icons portraying them.

BEAUTIFUL CREATURES

*1/2

Emma Thompson delivers the worst performance of her distinguished career, Jeremy Irons resists the urge to have the producers sign his paycheck even as the cameras are rolling on him, and the exaggerated accents by a significant chunk of the cast are no more authentically Southern than the Great Wall of China. And so it goes with Beautiful Creatures, writer–director Richard LaGravenese's dreary adaptation of a Young Adult novel penned by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl.

Set in a fictional South Carolina town — the type where Civil War reenactments are more popular than Christmas, and books like To Kill a Mockingbird are banned –  the story focuses on rebel without a clue Ethan Wate (Alden Ehrenreich) and the strange situations he encounters when new girl Lena Duchannes (Alice Englert, Jane Campion's daughter) turns up as a new student at his high school. Ethan works hard to befriend the girl, who is otherwise ostracized by local goobers — like the Bible–thumping Mrs. Lincoln (Thompson) — who already fear her eccentric uncle (Irons). Ethan eventually learns that Lena comes from a family of Casters (the preferred word for witches) and, like Luke Skywalker before her, she will end up either succumbing to the dark side or crusading for goodness by taking up arms against an evil parent.

Sparkly vampires suddenly look very appealing when compared to the Gothic witches on display here. For all the vitriol directed at the shaky Twilight series, all of its entries are definitely better than this dull and insipid movie, a trial run meant to gauge viewer interest in another series aimed at younger audiences.

To the kids whose possible attendance will decide its fate, allow me to quote Nancy Reagan: Just say no.

Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters

*1/2

This is meant to be as much a comedy as a fantasy flick, and there are some humorous bits up front. But the laughs dry up quickly, and all that's left is a hyperactive action film featuring yet another humorless performance by Jeremy Renner (as Hansel), a village that looks about as authentic as the one created for the equally ill–advised Red Riding Hood, both human and CGI witches who prove to be about as menacing as a sleeping hamster, and anachronistic touches more idiotic than inspired.

Zero Dark Thirty

***1/2

Bold, provocative and challenging in ways not even attempted by other award contenders like Lincoln and my 2012 fave Argo, Kathryn Bigelow's Zero Dark Thirty recalls what President Woodrow Wilson reportedly said after screening D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation: "It's like history written with lightning."

Like that silent classic, this galvanizing picture is a work that's steeped in controversy, yet unlike that hearty shout–out to the glories of the Ku Klux Klan, the uproar here isn't nearly as clear–cut as it was when confronted with Griffith's racist ideologies.

Bigelow reteams with scripter Mark Boal – both won Oscars for 2008's The Hurt Locker – for a movie that relates in painstaking detail the CIA's decade–long search for terrorist leader Osama bin Laden. Delivering a sublime performance of ferocious intensity, Jessica Chastain headlines as Maya, an agency operative who makes it her personal mission to ferret out the murderous al Qaeda head. Stumbling across helpful clues is, as someone notes, like trying to locate that proverbial needle in a haystack, but while other figures come and go over the years for various reasons (Jason Clarke and Jennifer Ehle play the most prominent of these co–workers), Maya is determined to see this through to the end, no matter how much resistance she meets from her superiors in this patriarchal organization.

Zero Dark Thirty is such a potent work that it's unfortunate it's become embroiled in a scandal which, frankly, it doesn't deserve. Erroneously denounced as taking a pro–torture stance by politicians trying to cover their own asses as well as by well–meaning but misunderstanding activists, the film actually does nothing of the sort. It instead acknowledges the very real presence of torture on the post–9/11 landscape.

But in a break from traditional Tinseltown thinking, Bigelow and Boal insist on treating viewers like intelligent, discerning adults, able to absorb complexities and weigh knotty material. It's a risky gamble on their part, but without it, we wouldn't have a movie as important – and gratifying – as this one.

CS

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