Friday’s Flicks

January is typically a fruitful period in local movie houses. Why? Studios hold many of their best films until the end of the year — usually a late-December opening in New York and/or LA in order to qualify for Oscar consideration — hoping to keep their movies at the forefront of Academy voters’ minds. Over the next several weeks said movies begin to fan out to smaller markets, hence the new-year windfall in these parts.

(I’d argue that spreading out the release schedule would make more sense than crowding them all together, not to mention give moviegoers a better year-round selection, but that’s an argument for another day.)

Well-received fare like Children of Men, Dreamgirls, The Good Shepherd, The History Boys, Little Children, Man Push Cart, Notes on a Scandal, The Painted Veil, Perfume and Volver have all opened on local screens in recent weeks. And the goodliness just keeps coming: This week we have The Last King of Scotland, Letters from Iwo Jima and Pan’s Labyrinth.

Oh, and don’t forget The Hitcher, the latest Michael Bay-produced horror retread to hit multiplexes. Actually, you probably should forget it. Let’s not encourage Mike to dig even deeper into his creativity-challenged horror archive. What’s next, another Friday the 13th entry? Oops, too late: an “Untitled Friday the 13th Sequel” is already in the works.

Worse, word is that Bay has his sights set on a remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds. On the plus side, we hear Naomi Watts might be interested in the Tippi Hedren role, an intriguing if ill-advised possibility, especially if Bay hires himself to direct. (Speaking of Watts, check out my interview with The Painted Veil star here.) Of course, he’d probably be a step up from the music video dudes Bay’s recruited to helm his horror redux series.

Don’t get me wrong — I love a great, trashy B-movie as much as the next guy. I still recall the thrill of sneaking a late-night double-header of The Beast Within and Friday the 13th Part 2 on HBO in the early ’80s, an experience that left my pre-teen self deathly terrified of sleeping anywhere near a window for several months (OK, I’m still wary). But Bay’s recent remakes scream of “Let’s make some money by repackaging ’70s and ’80s horror films to teenagers who have the hots for Sophia Bush or some other WB mannequin.” Hey, Mike, see The Descent for a fresh take on the genre. Even the Scream series is a step up.

Ah, let’s get back on point … Take advantage of the January bonanza while you can: The post-awards/pre-summer season months of February and March are usually a dumping ground for the studios’ weakest releases.

Opening films (click on grade for review):

The Hitcher: D+

The Last King of Scotland: B

Letters from Iwo Jima: B

Pan’s Labyrinth: B

Flick of the Week: Pan’s Labyrinth

No offense to Clint Eastwood’s admirable Letters from Iwo Jima and Forrest Whitaker’s towering performance in The Last King of Scotland, but the clear choice here is Pan’s Labyrinth.

Mexican director Guillermo del Toro’s gothic-tinged fairy tale for adults is an imaginative, sometimes brutal look at a precocious young girl, Ofelia (Ivana Baquero), who combats the harshness of her surroundings — it’s set amid Franco’s dictatorship in 1944 Spain — by creating elaborate fantasies.

It’s arguably del Toro best movie yet, one in which the director seamlessly incorporates his trademark fantasy elements with lacerating political commentary, a horror film that finds reality to be the real nightmare.

It’s also the latest film from a talented trio of Mexican directors that also includes Alfonso Cuarón (Children of Men) and Alejandro González Iñárritu (Babel). Speaking of which, the triumvirate appeared together for a freewheeling interview on the Charlie Rose Show a few weeks back. Missed it like I did? No problem. The show’s revamped Web site contains an archive with access to Charlie’s recent interviews in their entirety.

— Jason Gargano

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