By Katey Rich
Last weekend was a strange one by January standards. Box-office records were set, people went to the movies in record numbers, and the kind of pictures that usually dominate the summertime multiplexes-- a romantic comedy, a monster movie-- had their time in the sun. This weekend, though, it's back to normal: a throwaway thriller, a sequel nobody asked for, a brainless parody, and a movie that seems to be entirely about hot people dancing. As you can tell, the advertising campaigns for these movies haven't exactly focused on the plots. There's a fair chance that Cloverfield will experience a huge drop in popularity now that all the die-hard fans have seen it, but there still may be enough people anxious to see New York destroyed that it will edge out the new competition. That said, let's take a look at the newbies, at least the ones that have been screened for critics.
RAMBO. Opening in 2,751 theatres. Man, remember this guy? We last saw him back in 1988, doing his mercenary thing in Afghanistan in Rambo III. He's hightailed it out of there since then, for obvious reasons, and is now in the Burmese jungle, helping two American missionaries against the evil Burmese army. Sylvester Stallone returns as writer and director to the franchise that, along with Rocky, made him a star. Julie Benz, Matthew Marsden and Paul Schulze also star. And, of course, blood, guts and guns star as well.
None of the critics seem terribly excited to see Rambo make his triumphant return. "Not as bombastic as its predecessors, which is both its blessing and its curse," writes Newsday, where they seem to miss seeing tanks fly into helicopters. The Portland Mercury is also not quite thrilled: "Rambo stays on the verge of being a rousing dumbass flick at all times�you've never seen so many mid-air organs�yet its combination of outrageous bodily trauma and beagle-eyed moments of reflection never quite makes it go over the top." Stephanie Zacharek at Salon.com is of two minds, writing, "There may be no real reason for this new Rambo to exist. Then again, what's wrong with a little animal brawn now and then?" And A.O. Scott at The New York Times is also ready to welcome Rambo back to the fold: "His face looks like a misshapen chunk of granite, and his acting is only slightly more expressive, but the man gets the job done. Welcome back."
UNTRACEABLE. Opening in 2,368 theatres. We all thought MySpace was one of the worst things that came from the Internet, but that's nothing compared to what's facing cyber-crime expert Jennifer Marsh (Diane Lane) in Untraceable. At the website killwithme.com, a psychotic killer has brought kidnapped victims into a lair equipped with a video camera, where anyone can log on and watch the torture unfold. The more people who visit the site, the faster the victim dies. Jennifer must track down the killer, whose website is, ahem, untraceable, while trying to keep herself, her partner and her own family safe.
Though the critics have huge crushes on Diane Lane, most of them admit even she can't save this by-the-numbers thriller. "Untraceable isn't the sophisticated, brainy thriller it so nearly could have been, but just another movie about a serial murderer," writes The Washington Post. "It begins to practice the very hypocrisy it condemns in its audience, engaging in the rancid voyeurism it pretends to abhor." The Chicago Tribune is also disappointed in the movie's use of "torture porn," calling it "a two-faced bummer. It sets up the usual charnel-house contraptions, then shakes its head at the depravity of it all." Elsewhere in Chicago, though, Roger Ebert finds it "Lean and well-acted [...] a horrifying thriller, smart and tightly told, and merciless." Rex Reed at the New York Observer likes it just fine as well: "Untraceable does its job with goose bumps to spare."
HOW SHE MOVE. Opening in 1,531 theatres. It's a tough world out there in the step dancing community, as shown in Ian Iqbal Rashid's How She Move. Raya (Rutina Wesley) was a great dancer when she left to attend a private school, but since she blew the entrance exam and lost her scholarship, she's had to return to the neighborhood she left behind. By entering a step dancing competition, though, she has a chance to win a $50,000 prize and return to school. That involves joining a team led by a tough-yet-attractive guy (Dwain Murphy), as well as ignoring her schoolwork to the despair of her mom (Melanie Nicholls-King). But how much do you want to bet that, at the end, Raya overcomes her obstacles and succeeds?
Despite the familiar formula, most critics fell hard for the dancing drama. "It is, in short, the kind of movie that sinks or swims on its performances and atmosphere. How She Move is aces in both departments, from its magnetic cast of skilled dancer-actors to its script," writes Matt Zoller Seitz of The New York Times. LIsa Schwarbaum at Entertainment Weekly is even more exuberant: "She move good!" Variety calls the dance sequences "enormously enjoyable," and adds, "Ian Iqbal Rashid infuses the production with a grit and weightiness that never feel overdone, and his most dramatically effective moments -- including the unexpectedly resonant ending -- are often the quietest." Newsday, on the other hand, doesn't find any resonance in it at all: "Content to remain a teen flick, hoping to satisfy its audience with a hip-hop soundtrack, a few cute faces and music-video set-pieces."
4 MONTHS, 3 WEEKS AND 2 DAYS. Opening in 2 theatres. Cristian Mungiu's naturalistic drama won the Palme d'Or at Cannes, but didn't even make the Oscar shortlist for Best Foreign Language film, an omission that has certain bloggers calling for pitchforks and torches. The Romanian drama follows two college roommates, Otilia (Anamaria Marinca) and Gabita (Laura Vasiliu), navigating the seamy underworld of their city to try to procure Gabita an abortion. Cooperating with the slimy abortionist Mr. Bebe (Vlad Ivanov), rearranging their plans over and over again, Gabita and Otilia undergo changes in their friendship as each of them considers their uncertain future. Much of the movie is shot in continuous long takes by the acclaimed cinematographer Oleg Mutu.
Unquestionably, 4 Months is one of the most critically loved releases in years. "Misery is everywhere in this spare masterpiece, but so is artistic triumph," writes Lisa Schwarzbaum of Entertainment Weekly. Our own Rex Roberts calls it "a ragtag tour de force [...] this first feature by under-40 filmmaker Cristian Mungiu reveals unexpected depth and intensity." Anthony Lane at The New Yorker was engrossed, writing, "Mungiu's pacing is so sure, however, in its switching from loose to taut, and the concentration of his leading lady so unwavering, that the movie feels more like a thriller than a moody wallow." J.Hoberman at the Village Voice praises the film, but asks the necessary question for a foreign art film without an Oscar nod and showing in two theatres: "By any standard, 4 Months is a white-knuckle deal. Is there an audience?"