"Jack Reacher," "This is 40," and Film Church's "River Kwai" brunch

Along the way to becoming the fun, disposable piece of Hollywood trash that "Jack Reacher" is, it has a scene or two that may turn the stomachs of those still reeling from the tragic school shooting in Newtown, Conn., last week.

The camera takes the point of view of a rifleman's telescopic gun sight as he surveys the innocent people strolling along in a park. It intermittently lands on various people — a young girl, a businesswoman, a man on a bench, a twentysomething baby sitter — before the gunman opens fire, killing five.

The audience I saw the film with gasped out loud and then got very quiet. The shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary was still too fresh and it was a wake-up call to the audience, in a very effective and efficient way might I add, to our culture's complete and thorough addiction to guns. The movie goes out of its way to condemn this type of violence, of course, but it was tough to watch at first.

What was also interesting, however, was tracking how my own complicated personal feelings about the subject were negotiating with the movie's simple good vs. evil construct as the movie continued forward. "Jack Reacher" is based on the popular book series by Lee Child about a mythic figure, a mysterious ex-Army investigator who lives by his own moral code and dispenses justice outside of the law — a brute with a heart, if you will.

Writer/director Christopher McQuarrie's rousing slice of mainstream entertainment doesn't take itself too seriously, especially because it seems at least partially designed to strategically up Tom Cruise's tough guy quotient as he turns 50. He does a terrific job keeping the plot tense, the romance simmering, and the action exciting in an old-school kind of way. He’s also good at lightening the mood when things start getting too dark.

Cruise is up to the task of embodying the brooding 6-foot-5 best-selling book character even if he doesn't have the physical stature to back it up, and Robert Duvall, Rosamund Pike, and Richard Jenkins provide ample backup. In a weird bit of stunt casting that mostly works, legendary German film director Werner Herzog plays the film's baddie. Herzog is not much of an actor, but his alternately soothing and menacing voice does most of the heavy lifting.

Gradually, despite the appearance of a shooting range later in the film, "Jack Reacher" overcomes its eerie early parallel to the most recent awful public shooting and becomes what it is: a skillfully plotted, disposable mystery that may serve as a launching pad to a new franchise for Tom Cruise.

Writer/director/producer Judd Apatow's "This is 40" is many things, but mostly it's a messy and consistently funny movie filled with bitter truths and anxieties about middle-aged life. It's easy to forgive movies that ramble as much as "This is 40" does when they keep supplying laughs.

Paul Rudd and Leslie Mann reprise their roles from 2007's "Knocked Up" (which cemented Apatow as a new comedic powerhouse) as Pete and Debbie, a married couple struggling with the idea that they aren't getting any younger. Besides using his real-life wife Mann in a lead role, the couple's daughters are back as well. At times, the movie feels like a behind-the-scenes peek at the Apatow household, but it's precisely his astute personal observations that make the movie so truthful and funny.

"It doesn’t feel that personal, mainly because the more specific we go about details of our world, the more anyone who saw the movie said, 'Oh, that exact thing happens to me every day," Apatow said recently. "It became universal as it became more specific.'"

To that point, there are certain things about "This is 40" that ring so specifically and absolutely true to my experiences that it feels, at times, that the movie was designed personally for me. Like Apatow's last effort, the bitter "Funny People," "This is 40" feels a little long and it's main conflict isn't as specific and easy to identify as most movies (inner malaise and dread are hard to externalize), but it's overflowing with hard truths and relatable moments — the kind that the best, most hardcore of stand-up comedians can zero in on. With his talented crew of regular players (Jason Segel, Melissa McCarthy, Lena Dunham) and some new additions (Albert Brooks, John Lithgow, Megan Fox, of all people), Apatow does the same thing in "This is 40."

Liberty Hall continues its Film Church series this Sunday, Dec. 23, with a 35mm showing of director David Lean's classic 1957 Academy Award-winning Best Picture "The Bridge on the River Kwai." In theory, you may think you don't like two-and-a-half-hour prestige pictures from Hollywood's most indulgent period, but Lean's movie is hugely compelling. Plus, in 35mm, it will be gorgeous to look at as well.

This World War II work camp drama is a monumental battle of wills with lots of ambiguity and no clear cut good guys and bad guys. It features a durable William Holden, one of Alec Guinness' best performances, and the last great role of Japanese Hollywood import Sessue Hayakawa's long career.

The doors at Liberty Hall open at 11 a.m. "The Bridge on the River Kwai" is showing at noon, and brunch and bloody marys will be provided by 715 Restaurant.

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