By Neil Pedley
After a December in which big name stars have been mostly MIA, this holiday week finds Dustin Hoffman getting fired, Brad Pitt getting old and Tom Cruise trying to explain why you really should spend Christmas Day with your family reliving one of the most bloody chapters in recent history. Merry Christmas everyone!
A simple glance at the one-sheet for this anarchic family friendly crowd-pleaser from the Mouse House tells you everything you need to know. Searching for a new cash cow post-“Pirates,” the folks at Disney took one look at the numbers for “Night at the Museum” and decided they fancied a bit of that, so here comes Adam Sandler fending off aliens, cowboys and Romans when his world is transformed (literally) by the outlandish bedtime stories he tells his niece and nephew to sleep with each night, only to discover the stories to come true the next morning. Keri Russell, Guy Pearce, Russell Brand, Jonathan Pryce and Courteney Cox round out the eclectic supporting cast.
“The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”
As the credits roll on this gentle, life-affirming saga, it will be little surprise to anyone watching that the screenwriter behind David Fincher’s adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short story is Eric Roth, the Oscar-winning scribe of “Forrest Gump”, whose sticky fingerprints are all over this like a melted box of chocolates. Instead of a handicap of the mind, Brad Pitt is forced to deal with a handicap of the body as Benjamin Button, a man who is born old and ages backwards, returning time and again to his home in New Orleans and his one true love, Daisy (Cate Blanchett).
“Last Chance Harvey”
Given the pervasive air of economic doom and gloom that’s threatening to, quite frankly, ruin Christmas, it seems both inevitable and wholly appropriate that we come to this simple story about how much it sucks to lose your job, done Hollywood-style, of course. After teasing us with that unmistakable warble in “Kung Fu Panda” and “The Tale of Despereaux,” Dustin Hoffman puts in a shift as Harvey Shine, a fired jingle writer cooling his heels across the pond at his daughter’s wedding in London when his spirits are lifted by the charming Kate (Emma Thompson). The film marks the return of “Jump Tomorrow” writer/director Joel Hopkins and the reappearance of the amazingly now less famous Brolin, James.
Opens in New York and Los Angeles; expands on January 9th.
“Marley and Me”
In a world of digital pandas and hyperactive CG zebras, it seems as though the dog movie — that cinematic mainstay of so many wet Sunday afternoon marathons on TCM — is making a comeback. With “Wendy and Lucy” charming critics, this cheery adaptation of journalist John Grogan’s autobiographical tearjerker is set to become tissue fodder for the masses as the mischievous man’s best friend stars alongside Owen Wilson as John and his new bride Jenny (Jennifer Aniston), employing those big brown eyes to reflect the couple’s changing lives over the course of his own.
This screen adaptation of Richard Yates’ celebrated indictment of the American dream reunites the “Titanic” dream duo of Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio, this time under the direction of Winslet’s spouse Sam Mendes, as a desperately unhappy couple whose seemingly blissful suburban marriage masks a reservoir of resentment and quiet rage at their mutually unfulfilled lives. Critics are already flying the flag for Winslet, the perennial Oscar bridesmaid, claiming she’s a shoo-in for a statue at last, citing her primary competition this year as that chick from “The Reader.” Kathy Bates, who already has her Oscar, and the always excellent Michael Shannon co-star.
“The Secret of the Grain”
Tunisian-born writer/director Abdellatif Kechiche becomes the latest in a long line of immigrant filmmakers to employ the medium to mourn the diminishing role of the patriarch in contemporary Western society. Habib Boufares stars as Slimane Beiji, a family man crippled by feelings by feelings of inadequacy when he loses his job at the shipyard. Determined to restore his sense of pride and dignity, Slimane sets out to open a restaurant on the strength of his ex-wife’s couscous recipe to serve as his legacy, though his plans are met with stiff opposition from the French bureaucracy and collective apathy from his grown children. In French with subtitles.
Opens in New York.
Frank Miller makes a pit stop on the road to “Sin City 2” to sharpen his skills with his solo directorial debut, a dry run that attempts to lure the comic book crowd drumming their collective fingers in anticipation of the upcoming “Watchmen.” Adapted from Will Eisner’s noirish 1940s serial, the film finds longtime supporting player Gabriel Macht transitions into leading man status as Denny Colt, a rookie cop who moonlights by night as masked crime fighter The Spirit, protecting Central City from the evil machinations of the Octopus (Samuel L. Jackson). Eva Mendes, Scarlett Johansson, Jaime King and Sarah Paulson purse their lips in supporting roles.
“Theater of War”
Having documented the underground artist Ray Johnson in his last film, “How to Draw a Bunny,” John Walter goes above ground to chronicle this behind-the-scenes peek at The Public Theater’s production of “Mother Courage and Her Children” and explores the modern parallels to the Bertolt Brecht classic. Employing the 2006 Central Park performance starring Meryl Streep and interpreted by Tony Kushner as a jumping-off point, Walter talks to the cast and crew, examining how Brecht’s life and views on Communism, the shadow of the Nazi rule, and his theories on emotional distance as a vital part of artistic interpretation have helped to influence a generation of artists.
Opens in New York.
Despite a dodgy PR saga almost as bloody as World War II, Tom Cruise returns just in time to get in on a year that’s been all about comebacks. Playing that rarest of cinematic commodities, a sympathetic Nazi, Cruise somewhat stacks the deck as Col. Claus von Stauffenberg, the German officer who masterminded an audacious plot to assassinate Hitler and bring down the Third Reich. Although the reunion of “The Usual Suspects” director Bryan Singer and writer Christopher McQuarrie sounds promising, when Cruise appears in TV spots explaining why you should go see his movie, it makes one wonder whether there’s a larger conspiracy to bring down Cruise’s studio, United Artists.
“Waltz with Bashir”
A quest sparked by the recurring nightmares he suffered in the years following his military service, Israeli filmmaker Ari Folman’s animated docudrama takes the accepted mantra of “war is hell” and transforms it into an innovative psychological detective story that probes some uncomfortable truths about his country’s role in the 1982 Israeli-Lebanese war. Debilitated by recurring visions of snarling dogs but possessing no actual memory of the conflict in which he served, Folman tracks down his former comrades to hear their account but trades out talking heads in favor of a vivid digital depiction of the trauma of war as he pieces together his own fractured psyche.
Opens in New York and Los Angeles.
[Photo: “Bedtime Stories,” Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures, 2008]