Life of Pi

Irrfan Khan, Gerard Depardieu, Suraj Sharma | PG |

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ADVENTURE

With supreme confidence, Life of Pi vows to tell a story that will "make you believe in God." That's a bit of an overstatement-the Almighty is a reach for any film-but it will make you believe in CGI. Ethereal 3-D effects sprinkle fairy dust on this adaptation of Yann Martel's 2001 novel about an Indian boy who survives a shipwreck, only to find a tiger in his lifeboat. Nothing else this year looks as amazing as Life of Pi. For some of us, though, nothing will be as infuriating, either.

The story unfolds in flashback, when an unnamed writer (Rafe Spall) visits the adult Pi Patel (Khan), who recounts his idyllic early days, trying on religions and observing the animals in his father's zoo. Both experiences prove invaluable, starting the brutal night a storm takes down the ship carrying his family and their menagerie, leaving teen Pi (Sharma) with the tiger, called Richard Parker. Director Ang Lee's storytelling is masterful, with Pi and Parker engaged in an exhausting battle for survival, the film pivoting between Khan and Sharma's fine performances. So what's the problem? Without getting too spoilery, the film, like the book, has a controversial ending that I can't stand. Still, there's no denying the power of the story—and of the tiger. Largely a CGI creation, Richard Parker feels as real as the dangers of a vengeful ocean.

Rise of the Guardians

Chris Pine, Alec Baldwin, Isla Fisher, Jude Law | PG |

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ANIMATED

Here's where knowing your kids is critical. Can they, for instance, handle a tattooed Russian Santa and his toy-making Yeti with good cheer or are you looking at a mega-meltdown with tears oversalting that pricey popcorn? Guardians delivers a fresh take on the holidays, featuring Jack Frost (Pine), Santa (Baldwin), a manic Tooth Fairy (Fisher), the silent Sandman and an Australian Easter Bunny (Hugh Jackman) battling a bogeyman named Pitch (Law), but it takes liberties with childhood lore to do it. Most of the gambles pay off, thanks to snappy writing and thrilling 3-D sequences. But know that this is a Christmas movie with edge, including gnarly fight scenes and fairy-tale figures that aren't exactly warm (even when they are fuzzy).

Red Dawn

Chris Hemsworth, Josh Hutcherson | PG-13 |

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ACTION

What's the rationale for shooting this inept, inert retread of the '84 cult classic? Apparently that Hems-worth makes a pretty credible Patrick Swayze. His steely marine, Jed, is the best thing about this guns-blazing test of patience, as it follows a band of kids fighting a North Korean-Russian invasion. (Yep, Russia again. Red Dawn can't shake the '80s.) If you're wondering how foreigners blitzed the U.S. so easily, stop. You're already thinking more than the film did.

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You'll hear about Hitchcock at Oscar time, given Anthony Hopkins's fine turn as the great director and Helen Mirren's fantastic performance as his wife and creative partner, Alma. But the film isn't as sure-footed as its cast. The action ostensibly follows the making of Psycho but goes off the rails on two fronts: Alma's writing project with pal and Strangers on a Train scribe Whitfield Cook (Danny Huston) and bizarre interludes in which Hitch imagines he's talking to Ed Gein, the killer who inspired Psycho's Norman Bates. Sadly, Scarlett Johansson and Jessica Biel don't get much time to show off how adroitly they transform into Janet Leigh and Vera Miles, respectively, but at least Alma gets her due.

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