One more week until Hollywood unleashes a mighty flood of new films, in honor of noted multiplex fan Baby Jesus. This week's only big release is Peter Jackson's return to Middle-earth, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, which at two hours and 46 minutes is definitely a pee-before, bring-snacks-to-eat-during experience. My review below the jump, along with takes on the Alan Cumming showcase Any Day Now and Israeli coming-of-age drama The Matchmaker.
Also worth the popcorn calories: documentarian Ken Burns' provocative look at one of New York City's most infamous crimes, The Central Park Five; less so is the FDR dramedy Hyde Park on Hudson, which does star Bill Murray, so at least it has that goin' for it, which is nice. I review both films here.
Any Day Now In 1970s West Hollywood, flamboyant drag queen Rudy (Alan Cumming) and closeted, newly divorced lawyer Paul (Garret Dillahunt) meet and become an unlikely but loving couple. Their opposites-attract bond strengthens when they become de facto parents to Marco (Isaac Leyva), a teen with Down syndrome left adrift when his party-girl mother (Jamie Anne Allman) is arrested. Domestic bliss — school for Marco with a caring special-education teacher (Kelli Williams); a fledgling singing career for Rudy (so: lots of crooning, for Cumming superfans) — is threatened by rampant homophobia, so Rudy and Paul must conceal their true relationship from Paul's overbearing boss and the other parents at Marco's school. When the secret gets out, the fact that Marco is being well cared-for matters not to the law; he's immediately shunted into a foster home while Paul and Rudy battle the court for custody. Actor-turned-director and co-writer Travis Fine (2010's The Space Between) guides a veteran cast through this based-on-true-events tale, with sensitive performances and realistic characterizations balancing out the story's broader strokes. (1:43) (Cheryl Eddy)
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey Make no mistake: the Lord of the Rings trilogy represented an incredible filmmaking achievement, with well-deserved Oscars handed down after the third installment in 2003. If director Peter Jackson wanted to go one more round with J.R.R. Tolkien's beloved characters for a Hobbit movie, who was gonna stop him? Not so fast. This return to Middle-earth (in 3D this time) represents not one but three films — which would be self-indulgent enough even if part one didn't unspool at just under three hours, and even if Jackson hadn't decided to shoot at 48 frames per second. (I can't even begin to explain what that means from a technical standpoint, but suffice to say there's a certain amount of cinematic lushness lost when everything is rendered in insanely crystal-clear hi-def.) Journey begins as Bilbo Baggins (a game, funny Martin Freeman) reluctantly joins Gandalf (a weary-seeming Ian McKellan) and a gang of dwarves on their quest to reclaim their stolen homeland and treasure, batting Orcs, goblins, Gollum (Andy Serkis), and other beasties along the way. Fan-pandering happens (with characters like Cate Blanchett's icy Galadriel popping in to remind you how much you loved LOTR), and the story moves at a brisk enough pace, but Journey never transcends what came before — or in the chronology of the story, what comes after. I'm not quite ready to declare this Jackson's Phantom Menace (1999), but it's not an completely unfair comparison to make, either. (2:50) (Cheryl Eddy)
The Matchmaker In 2006, amid ongoing conflict with Lebanon, an Israeli novelist learns he's received an unexpected inheritance from a man he knew in 1968, the summer before he turned 16. Most of Avi Nesher's The Matchmaker takes place during those golden months in Haifa, when young Arik (Tuval Shafir) — lover of Dashiell Hammett, son of Holocaust survivors — takes a job working for a charismatic but vaguely shady matchmaker (comedian Adir Miller, who won the Israeli equivalent of a Best Actor Oscar), following potential clients to assure their quest for love is on the level. His exciting new gig whisks the budding writer out of middle-class monotony and introduces him to a wealth of colorful "Low Rent district" types; he also nurses a raging crush on his best friend's free-spirited American cousin. Mostly a gently nostalgic tale, The Matchmaker also offers an unusual take on the Holocaust, viewing it from two decades later and using its looming memory to shape the characters who experienced it firsthand — as well as members of the younger generation, like Arik, who pages through The House of Dolls to learn more, even as he refers to the concentration camp where his father was held as simply "there." (1:52) (Cheryl Eddy)