BIG MIRACLE starts off with a boring title (one that gives away the ending) and goes downhill from there. Directed by Ken Kwapis, who alternates between helming funny, effective television shows (The Office, The Bernie Mac Show) and mirthless, mindless Hollywood romantic comedies (License to Wed, He's Just Not That Into You), Miracle is full of clichés and misplaced 1980s nostalgia.
The story behind the movie is true, and potentially pretty heartwarming. In 1988, a family of whales got trapped by an unexpected freeze near Barrow, Alaska. This quickly became international news, and a huge, disparate group of people united, moving heaven and earth to clear the whales a path to the Pacific. The dramatized version of these events focuses on the fledgling newsman who breaks the story (John Krazinski) and his Greenpeace-activist ex-girlfriend (Drew Barrymore).
Again, it's no surprise how the movie ends, and the insubstantial sketches-of-characters that populate the film are equally predictable. Trying to tie in Cold War politics, Native Alaskan fishing rights, oil drilling and TV news brass-ring grabbing is overly ambitious and misguided. None of these elements is serviced well enough to be effective. PG. 107m. At the Broadway and Mill Creek.
CHRONICLE, on the other hand, is bright and refreshing -- an unexpected delight. It's rare for a movie to add something original to the superhero genre, and rarer still for a fake found-footage documentary to prove watchable. Chronicle succeeds, resoundingly, on both fronts.
After three high school seniors find a big, weird, glowing thing in a cave, they're imbued with impressive telekinetic powers. These secret abilities forge an unlikely bond among the three, who couldn't be more different: Steve (Michael B. Jordan) is the Big Man on Campus. Matt is the handsome philosopher pothead. Andrew (Dane DeHaan) is the much-abused outcast, and it's through his camera's lens that we watch events unfold. As they learn to use and control their formidable power, they come to disagree about how it should be used. While Steve and Matt are content to amuse themselves and levitate inanimate objects, Andrew's feelings of impotence and mistrust find a potentially lethal outlet.
Plot-wise, the movie doesn't offer anything revelatory, but it does go in consistently surprising directions. The filmmakers make clever use of the found-footage device when one of our protagonists figures out how to float his camcorder around, freeing it from the nauseating hand-held choppiness we so often get. And the actors all turn in natural, lived-in performances as youngsters contending with something unbelievable. The climax and denouement offer some of the most intense, satisfying moments I've ever seen in an effects movie. PG13. 83m. At the Broadway, Mill Creek and Fortuna.
THE IRON LADY. Meryl Streep's performance in The Iron Lady is pretty remarkable. Of course it is. Disappointingly, the rest of the movie can't match it.
The story picks up late in Margaret Thatcher's life. We find her living alone, struggling with the early stages of senile dementia. She can't fully accept that her husband is dead, or that she is no longer Britain's prime minister. To cope, she spends her days talking to ghosts, drinking whisky and gazing into photographs, thus giving the filmmakers jumping-off points for flashbacks.
That clunky structure is the main failing of The Iron Lady. It tries to give us an insight into the domestic struggles and personal history of Great Britain's only female PM, while also offering a survey of the world events that took place during her life. The focus is clearly on the life of the woman, but for some reason we're repeatedly subjected to jarring flashbacks and extended musical montages.
Where Streep's performance is chameleon-like and near perfect -- capturing the ambition, drive and emotional center of a complex and interesting historical figure -- the rest of the movie does her a disservice. Seemingly unable to settle on a tone or visual style, the filmmakers pad the movie with incongruous music, editing and camera angles. By cutting away from Streep's Thatcher again and again, they undermine the work of a great actor in what could have been a great role. PG13. 105m. At the Minor.
THE WOMAN IN BLACK is a haunted-house story set on the misty northern coast of England. Daniel Radcliffe plays an attorney dispatched to a dismal little village to settle the affairs of a recently deceased widow. He is struggling with the loss of his own wife, who died in childbirth. The village he visits is noteworthy mostly for its high rate of child mortality.
It's immediately obvious that his presence is unwelcome. Even more clear is that some creepy shit is going down out at Eel Marsh House. We get some exposition about a mother and child forced apart: The boy drowned in the inky mud of the marsh, at which point Mom went bonkers. Then the real unpleasantness began.
As a genre piece, *Woman* is fairly effective; it delivers a few exciting scares. The house's suitably off-putting atmosphere is accompanied by an assortment of the freakiest wind-up toys I've ever seen. Radcliffe does a convincing-enough turn as the heartsick protagonist. Ciaran Hinds, playing the only villager willing to give him the time of day, makes the most of an underwritten part. But in the third act the movie runs out of steam and coasts to an unsatisfyingly pat resolution on fumes of creepiness. PG13. 95m. At the Broadway, Mill Creek and Fortuna.
--John J. Bennett
SAFE HOUSE. The Denzel paradox works like this: The less likeable his character (see: Training Day), the more I like the guy. Here he plays a dangerous CIA renegade opposite Ryan Reynold's rookie operative. R. 115m. At the Broadway, Mill Creek and Fortuna.
JOURNEY 2: THE MYSTERIOUS ISLAND. Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson leads a family friendly adventure to the isle of 3D effects. Jules Verne barfs in his grave. PG. 94m. In 3D and 2D at the Broadway and Mill Creek, 3D only at the Fortuna.
STAR WARS: EPISODE 1 - THE PHANTOM MENACE 3D. Have your childhood memories re-befouled, in 3D. PG. 140m. At the Broadway, Mill Creek and Fortuna.
THE VOW. Newlyweds (Rachel McAdams and Channing Tatum) get in a car crash. The wife emerges from a coma with amnesia, so the hubby sets out to woo her anew. PG13. 104m. At the Broadway and Mill Creek.
THIS MEANS WAR. Two hunky CIA operatives discover that they're both dating Reese Witherspoon. Cue penis-measuring contest. This doesn't officially open until Feb. 17, but there will be Valentine's Day "sneak peaks" at both the Broadway and Fortuna. PG13. 98m.
Lotsa movies at the Arcata Theatre Lounge this week, starting with a pair of aquatic docs at the monthly Ocean Night, a benefit for Ocean Conservancy, Humboldt Surfrider and Humboldt Baykeeper. Lost in the Ether, a surfboard-design documentary from acclaimed Aussie artist Andrew Kidman, will be followed by the 28-minute Ancient Sea Turtles Stranded in a Modern World. Doors at 6:30 p.m. $3 donation.
On Friday, Demi Moore erotically fingers wet clay while getting caressed by Patrick Swayze's Ghost (1990). PG13. 8 p.m. Saturday night brings Monty Python alum Terry Gilliam's epic 1988 fantasia The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. PG. 126m. 8 p.m. The quirky-and-comedic adventure theme spills into Sunday with The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (2005), starring Bilbo-to-be Martin Freeman and Mos Def. Don't Panic. PG. 109m. 6 p.m.
If Valentine's Day makes you grumpy, you might get some catharsis from Sci-Fi Pint and Pizza Night, featuring Godzilla (aka Gojira, 1954), an allegory for the devastation wrought on Japan by the atomic bomb. (The anti-American sentiments were removed in the poorly dubbed English-language version.) Destroy All Monsters (1968) is like the all-star game for giant monsters. (Kumonga, represent!) The fun starts at 6 p.m.
THE ADVENTURES OF TINTIN. Steven Spielberg's motion-capture adaptation of the classic Belgian comic follows a young reporter and his dog, Snowy. PG. 107m. At the Garverville through 2/13.
THE ARTIST. Mostly silent, black-and-white homage to cinema's mostly silent, black-and-white early years, nominated for 10 Academy Awards. PG13. 103m. At the Minor and the Broadway.
THE DESCENDANTS. George Clooney plays a Hawaiian parent and land baron thrust into real life after his wife's jet-boating accident. R. 115m. At the Minor.
THE GREY. Liam Neeson vs. wolves. Seriously. R. 117m. At the Broadway, Mill Creek and Fortuna.
HUGO. Martin Scorsese's adaptation of The Invention of Hugo Cabret returns to local theaters boasting 11 Academy Award nominations. PG. 127m. In 3D and 2D at the Broadway.
ONE FOR THE MONEY. Worst-movie-of-the-year candidate stars Katherine Heigl as a bail bond agent charged with hauling in her high school ex. PG13. 106m. At the Broadway.
RED TAILS. The dogfight action scenes rule, but otherwise this is an uneven and simplistic account of the Tuskegee Airmen. PG13. 125m. At the Broadway.
TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY. John le Carré's classic Cold War espionage novel comes to the big screen with an ensemble cast led by Gary Oldman. R. 128m. Starts 2/14 at the Garberville.
UNDERWORLD AWAKENING. Kate Bekinsale squeezes into a leather catsuit to battle vampires and werewolves. R. 88m. In 3D and 2D at the Broadway.