2012’s final two critical faves come to town, right on the heels of Thursday’s Oscar nominations.

In Theaters

Zero Dark Thirty(Columbia Pictures)
Zero Dark Thirty
(Columbia Pictures)

From Kathryn Bigelow, director of The Hurt Locker, comes Zero Dark Thirty, a gripping look at the decade-long pursuit of Osama bin Laden.  When the film first went into production, the al-Qaeda mastermind remained at large, suggesting that the work would conclude in an open-ended Zodiac-like fashion, but still be a thought-provoking experience.  But then Seal Team Six took care of business and screenwriter Mark Boal had to tweak the material a tad.  Jessica Chastain stars as the CIA officer who commits herself to the cause and leads what very well could be the year’s best cast (Jason Clarke, Kyle Chandler, James Gandolfini, Mark Strong, Edgar Ramirez, Mark Duplass, Jennifer Ehle, Joel Edgerton, and Chris Pratt fill out the roll call).  The film has received hate mail for its depiction of torture, though those angry letters have amusingly been written by folks who hadn’t seen the film.  I found Bigelow’s and Boal’s handling of the subject matter to be thoughtful and balanced despite its brutality, and the same goes for the film as a whole.  Look for my full review on Friday.

The Impossible(Summit Entertainment)
The Impossible
(Summit Entertainment)

The 2004 Christmas Day tsunami that ravaged the Indian Ocean region is the basis for The Impossible.  Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor star as parents of three young boys, all of whose lives are dramatically altered by the natural disaster.  Director Juan Antonio Bayona (The Orphanage) brings his scary movie skill set to a real-life horror, providing the film with both terrifyingly grand destruction and the even greater fear of losing loved ones.  Though it falls victim to the weaknesses of a “separated family seeks reunion” film, it also earns the heartbreaking and heart-stopping moments that such an adventure offers.  Look for my review on Friday.

Gangster Squad(Warner Bros. Pictures)
Gangster Squad
(Warner Bros. Pictures)

Easily the most promising new title I’ve yet to see is Gangster Squad, Ruben Fleischer’s vision of the LAPD’s war against East Coast mobsters’ westward expansion.  The filmmaker’s Zombieland was a lot of fun and with Ryan Gosling, Sean Penn, Josh Brolin, and Emma Stone on the bill for his follow-up, it’s no wonder the film was originally posited as a key fall 2012 release.  That was before the Aurora, Colorado movie theater murders, a tragic event that lined up a little too closely with one of the film’s scenes: a cinema shootout.  Gangster Squad has now been reedited, though debuting the same week as the Aurora shooting suspect’s trial feels like an odd choice.

A Haunted House(Open Road Films)
A Haunted House
(Open Road Films)

Found-footage horror films get their lampooning due in Marlon Wayans’ A Haunted House.  Based on the trailer, the spoof focuses on the Paranormal Activity franchise with a little The Devil Inside sprinkled in.  Though it’s not saying much, the Wayans family have essentially headed up Hollywood’s parody reins for at least a decade, and while their touch has dwindled recently (many will argue that they never had it), there remains a hope that the next I’m Gonna Git You Sucka or Don’t Be A Menace is just around the corner.  Making fun of an approach as minor as found-footage may not be the ticket, but there’s always room for surprise.

Fleeing the Scene

Jack Reacher is out, as is Guilt Trip and the 3D version of Monsters, Inc.  So it goes.

On DVD

Plenty to choose from this week, beginning with Frankenweenie, Tim Burton’s excellent return to stop-motion animation.  There’s also the unsettling indie drama Compliance, about the manipulation of fast-food employees; Dredd, the newer Stallone-less version, that got respectable reviews and seems likely to receive a second wind on the home front; and the revered HBO original movie Game Change, set during the 2008 Presidential election and featuring Julianne Moore as Sarah Palin.  Elsewhere is a pair of less-cherished works from the likely Oscar nominated leads from The Silver Linings Playbook: the Jennifer Lawrence-led thriller The House at the End of the Street and Hit & Run, in which Bradley Cooper sports dreadlocks.  Proceed with caution.

On Netflix Instant

Most appealing is Mission:Impossible – Ghost Protocol, Pixar all-star Brad Bird’s excellent first foray into live action filmmaking.  Based on the Tom Clancy novel and featuring Ben Affleck as a young Jack Ryan, The Sum of All Fears had the misfortune of opening the same summer as buddy Matt Damon’s The Bourne Identity, and was unfairly forgotten.  It’s definitely worth revisiting, especially with Kenneth Branagh’s Jack Ryan set for a Christmas 2013 release, starring Star Trek’s Chris Pine in the titular role with Keira Knightley and Kevin Costner in supporting roles.  Speaking of Costner, Brian De Palma’s The Untouchables, one of the actor’s first leading-man roles, is now available, as is the dystopian cult classic The Warriors, which, as far as I know, has nothing to do with Costner whatsoever.

As for 2012 releases, I didn’t love Todd Solondz’s Dark Horse, but it seems somewhat better in retrospect and probably deserves a second look.  Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax, featuring Danny DeVito as the eponymous speaker for the trees, is a good bet for the kids, but not V/H/S.  The ensemble/composite horror film is a mess of a found-footage experiment, and other than its final chapter is a complete wreck.  It’s no wonder that the Wayans want to spoof it and its ilk, but so did the folks behind Supernatural Activity, who technically beat Marlon & Co. to the punch.  For those who love parodies, an interesting double feature awaits.

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