Holiday Weekend Movie Forecast:<em> True Grit</em> Vs. <em>Little Fockers</em>

<p>The Western that earned John Wayne an Oscar over 40 years ago returns to the screen this weekend, re-envisioned by the Coen brothers. <em>True Grit</em> stars newcomer 14-year-old Hailee Steinfeld as the fearless and stubborn Mattie Ross, a girl determined to track down outlaw Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), her father's killer. Jeff Bridges plays U.S. Marshal Rooster Cogburn, and he joins the manhunt with LeBoeuf (Matt Damon), a Texas Ranger who seeks to take the killer back to Texas for the murder of another man. Mattie must enlists the help of Cogburn to find her father's murderer before LeBoeuf by entering Indian territory.</p><p></p>Reviews have been almost fairly positive, with Peter Travers of Rolling Stone <a href="">glowing</a>, "What makes <em>True Grit</em> a new classic for the Coens is the way the brothers absorb the unfairly unsung Portis into their DNA, like they did with Cormac McCarthy in <em>No Country for Old Men</em>. <em>True Grit </em>is packed with action and laughs, plus a touching coda with an older Mattie, but it's the dialogue that really sings. Great filmmaking. Great acting. Great movie. Saddle up."

<p>Just in time for the holidays, Greg Focker (Ben Stiller) returns with his wife Pam and their two twins in <em>Little Fockers</em>. Also back on the big screen are Greg's quirky parents Roz and Bernie (Barbara Streisand and Dustin Hoffman), as well as CIA retiree Jack Byrnes (Robert DeNiro) and his wife Dina (Blythe Danner). Just when you thought Greg had made it into Jack's circle of trust, Greg manages to screw things up yet again through his new gig with a drug company. Oh, horse apples!</p><p></p>Despite the all-star cast, Little Fockers has gotten savagely negative reviews. Joe Williams of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch <a href="">laments</a>, "if instead of story and characters, your movie wish list includes projectile vomiting and erection gags, this lump of coal has your name on it."

<p>If you weren't totally put off by Gwyneth Paltrow's rendition of "Umbrella" on <em>Glee</em>, perhaps you'll also be able to stomach her in <em>Country Strong</em>, as country music superstar Kelly Canter, who despite bouts in rehab and run-ins with the law, returns to the road to pursue her career with the support of her husband and manager, James (Tim McGraw). But complications arise when yummy rising star Beau Hutton (Garrett Hedlund) joins the scene, determined to see Kelly succeed. Leighton Meester also stars as the young God-loving Chiles Stanton who exudes all the qualities that Kelly cannot.</p><p></p>Kirk Honeycutt of The Hollywood Reporter <a href="">says</a>, "Country Strong feels like a script that needed a Page One rewrite. Ideas and character relationships are poorly thought out. Motivations are hard to pin down as characters seemingly abandon their own best interests." And in the end, it seems as though the film may just be trying to hard to include the usual ingredients; according to Honeycutt, "There are few good ideas here since the movie wallows in about every country chestnut imaginable. If it's country, there's got to be a drunken performer struggling to get back in the game, right? If it's country, it's got to have betrayals, broken hearts, a sick kid, a couple of punches to the face and pickup trucks. Yep, got 'em all."

<em>Black is the new big</em>. Yes, that's the tagline for Jack Black's latest 3-D flick, <em>Gulliver's Travels</em>, now showing in theaters. The plot line sounds just like what you'd expect from the star of gems like <em>Nacho Libre</em>. Based extremely loosely on the 18th-century tale by Jonathan Swift, the film features Black as Lemuel Gulliver, a slacker mail room worker who plagiarizes some travel-writing pieces in order to impress office crush and travel editor Darcy, played by Amanda Peet. Darcy willingly sends Gulliver off in a boat to the Bermuda Triangle, where he suddenly finds himself a giant in a world full of tiny people.<p></p>In addition to the expected negative reviews, the Times had Jonathan Swift review the movie from beyond the grave! Mr. Swift <a href=";pagewanted=1">writes</a>, "A Child of average Wit or even moderate Dullness — a boy of Nine, let us say, who can be coaxed away from the Wii of a Christmas afternoon — might pass a pleasant interval chuckling at the absurd incongruities that arise when something very large is placed beside something very small. Nor will this notional child’s elder companion be subject to inordinate Anguish, much as he might wish himself in the place of those unencumbered souls thronging the adjacent Room to see <em>True Grit.</em>"' Swift adds, 'I will decline to undertake a second voyage to “Gulliver’s Travels,” chusing instead to devote myself to the preparation of my customary Holiday Feast, a delectable Stew made from the flesh of Irish Babies. (JK! ROTFL!)"

<p>From the director of <em>The Triplets of Belleville</em> comes another whimsically animated tale of a French aging magician who, finding himself unemployed, travels to Scotland, where he meets a teenager named Alice. <em>The Illusionist</em> is a story of coming of age, at a time when womanhood is not fully realized, yet childhood wonder is fading fast. What develops between Alice and the illusionist is an unlikely friendship that leads to all sorts of unexpected adventures.</p><p></p>So far, Sunshine Cinema and Paris Theater are the only theaters showing the film in New York, beginning on Christmas day. Peter Bradshaw of The Guardian <a href="">raves</a> that <em>The Illusionist</em> is "utterly distinctive and beguiling, with its own language and grammar of innocence: gentle, affectionate, whimsical, but deeply felt and with an arrowhead of emotional pain. I think it will be admired and loved as much as Hayao Miyazaki's<em> Spirited Away</em> was 10 years ago...Simply being an animation, and an old-style animation, is a great effect.<p></p><em> The Illusionist </em>is like a seance that brings to life scenes from the 1950s with eerie directness, in a way that glitzy digital animation or live-action period location work could somehow never do. Something in the unassuming simplicity of the composition allows the viewer to engage directly with the world being conjured up. This is, after all, a film for which the 1950s is the present-day. "

<em>Secret Sunshine</em>, South Korea's Official Submission to the Best Foreign Language Film Category of the 80th Annual Academy Awards in 2008, follows Sin-ae (Do-yeon Jeon), a grief-stricken widow who transplants herself and her son to her late husband's hometown of Miryang. After starting a new life as a piano teacher, Sin-ae's world is once again torn apart when her son is violently kidnapped and killed. Spoiler alert? As a means of coping with her grief, she turns to her devout Christian neighbors for some good old-fashioned misplaced advice that leads her even more into a self-destructive downward spiral.<p></p>Reviews have been generally supportive, with Noel Murray of the A.V. club <a href=",49386/">saying</a>, "from start to finish, Lee crafts scenes that show how people lie to themselves, in ways both subtle and deeply disturbing. Jeon gives a powerful performance as a woman who refuses to see the flaws in her late husband, yet can’t stop seeing the flaws in everyone around her, or in herself...<em>Secret Sunshine</em> is a frequently beautiful film with a cold, dark heart."

<em>The Sound of Insects</em> interprets the actual journals of a man who committed suicide by starving himself in the middle of the Austrian wetlands. The man's final two months of life were documented in this journal, which later was adapted to a novella by Shimada Masahiko entitled 'Until I Am a Mummy,' which recounts the painful and visceral realities of death. <p></p>Reviews have been mixed, with Rachel Saltz, of the Times emerging as one of the harsher critics <a href="">saying</a>, "If 'The Sound of Insects' were a book, about halfway through you’d probably want to slam it shut and throw it against the wall... Mr. Liechti clearly finds value and even a measure of spiritual grace in this man’s radical renunciation of life. You’ll be pardoned for finding it numbing."

<p>Unlike other human protagonists in the films opening this week, <em>Nénette</em>'s leading lady is a 40-year-old orangutan. <em>Nénette</em> traces the title character beyond her 30-something years at the Jardin des Plantes in Paris, where she is the oldest inmate. An animal who was once spritely and active, she is now shown in her arthritically tired, and possibly depressed state. Throughout the entire documentary, the camera's gaze focuses almost solely on Nénette, despite the off-screen voices of visitors and experts piped in throughout the hour-plus film by documentarian Nicolas Philibert.</p><p></p>Just as observers cannot seem to agree on what exactly is ailing Nénette, critics seem equally conflicted in their reviews. The Times <a href="">recommends the film as</a>, "Beautiful in its minimalism, <em>Nénette </em>is no anti-zoo rant but a melancholy meditation on captivity."' Contrastingly, <a href="">the Village Voice warns</a>, "Watching Nénette watch those who gape at her is an intriguing, multi-layered exercise of voyeurism, but one that wanes after our gaze is demanded for too long."

<p>Moody isolation permeates most of Sophia Coppola's films, so it's no great shock that in <em>Somewhere</em>, we meet Johnny, a depressed C-list actor who's grasping at what remains of his stardom. In her debut work, <em>The Virgin Suicides</em>, Coppola presented the achingly beautiful Lisbon girls and their day-to-day repressed teenage lives. In <em>Lost in Translation</em>, Bill Murray's attempts to connect with his family overseas were fragmented and distanced. <em>Somewhere</em> examines the disjointed relationship between Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff) and his daughter Cleo, played by Elle Fanning. Perhaps just as much a character in the film is the famous Chateau Marmont, a retreat in Hollywood for high profile celebrities, and the location of John Belushi's real-life overdose in the '80s.</p><p></p>Despite early negative whisperings, recent reviews have been decent, with Roger Ebert giving the film <a href="">four stars and adding</a>, "Coppola watches this world. The familiar strangers on the hotel staff are on a first-name basis because a star's world has become reduced to his support. Hookers and sex partners come and go. There are parties filled with strangers, most of them not excited to see a star because they see stars constantly...Coppola is a fascinating director. She sees, and we see exactly what she sees. There is little attempt here to observe a plot. All the attention is on the handful of characters, on Johnny. He has attained success in his chosen field, and lost track of the ability to experience it. Perhaps you can stimulate yourself so much for so long that your sensitivity wears out. If Johnny has no inner life and his outer life no longer matters, then he's right: He's nothing."

<em>"It's Christmas, Theo, it's the time of miracles."</em> On Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, the Sunshine will screen what is arguably not only the best holiday movie ever, but the best action movie as well: John McTiernan's 1988 classic <em>Die Hard</em>. Smarter and funnier than it might seem at first glance, the movie stars a cynical Bruce Willis in his breakout role as a NY cop trapped inside an LA office tower, where the deliciously devilish Alan Rickman has taken hostages at an office Christmas party. Eminently quotable, the movie also stars Reginald VelJohnson as a bumbling LAPD cop on the outside, and William Atherton as the sleazy local TV reporter who'll do anything for a scoop. <em>Die Hard</em>'s rarely screened in theaters, so cancel whatever boring Christmas plans you may have made and spend it with Bruce on the big screen. <em>"Come out to the coast, we'll get together, have a few laughs."</em>