The holidays mean more moviegoing at our house -- here's my Good, Better, Best Edition of TicketStub:

* Dan In Real Life -- Sometimes you've got tinder and sparks but the flame just doesn't catch. That's the problem, literally and figuratively, with this movie. Written and directed by Peter Hedges, he of the superb indie family dramas What's Eating Gilbert Grape? and Pieces of April, this one promised a fresh take on a time-worn premise (the aspirational, multigenerational family vacation house movie) starring the talented and conveniently white-hot Steve Carrell. All the elements are there: sad-eyed widower father, check. Spunky teenage daughters, check. Wry grandparents (in the form of John Mahoney and Diane Wiest, oy), smartass younger brother (in the form of Dane Cook, double oy!), foxy interloper (Juliette Binoche), check. Why doesn't this succeed? Tepid writing, an overall lack of subtlety, and one too many forced setpieces -- I think you can either sneak off for romantic twosome bowling or put on a family talent show art-directed by Martha Stewart, not both, in one of these movies. Whoops, I forgot the expository, girls-against-the-boys team crossword puzzle contest! See what I mean? Maybe this subgenre has run its course, maybe they forgot to give Steve Carrell some meaningful character development, or maybe I'm just too old and jaded...come to think of it, the worst thing I can say about this movie is that if I were still 15 I would have loved it. Yikes. Extra points for Dane Cook, actually, for his surprising underplaying of the cuckolded brother, and Emily Blunt for making a meal of a bit part. Copious points off for the entirely unnecessary nuptial finale. (C-)

* The Mist -- What's more satisfying than Hollywood finally getting around to adapting your favorite Stephen King story? When the movie itself is awesome! Frank Darabont, the man who left me cold with The Shawshank Redemption, makes good here with a note-perfect visualization of this classic creepfest. A summer storm unleashes a mysterious mist on a small Maine town, and our hero, the smart and strapping Thomas Jane, is trapped in the local supermarket with his young son, ornery neighbor, and sundry local folk, who start to squabble, subdivide, and eventually turn on each other. This is unsettling enough, but then...monsters come! And the monsters look exactly as I imagined them, although one takes the form of Marcia Gay Harden. The story is more Lord of the Flies than The Blob, though, and Darabont takes a huge gamble by tacking on a dark and disturbing ending -- far darker than the original, if you can believe that. Personally, I appreciated it, while Nat was appalled. I think the film can be read as an allegory of America's misadventures abroad and the high price we pay for sacrifices made in the heat of the moment, or the miasma of uncertainty. But don't worry about all that -- monsters, people! Big creepy crawly ones! Judicious special effects make the difference here, though some of the best thrills come from simple sounds, shadows, and a length of clothesline stained crimson with blood. Eeek! (A)

* I'm Not There -- A rambling ride through the life and times of a great American self-inventor, Bob Dylan. Lovingly staged and lushly shot, the film shuffles together a half dozen characterizations, from hobo dreamer to Jesus freak to pretentious aesthete, and everyone in between. Cate Blanchett is the clear standout -- now that I've seen her, I cannot imagine what other actor could possibly have pulled off the prickly, wired, louche genius of the "goes electric" period...maybe Peter Lorre? I kid, I kid. Heath Ledger adds an interesting twist as a bona fide hunk, for the "failed family man" segment, and Marcus Franklin as a young black runaway/blues prodigy is a wonderful blend of innocence and gravity. I was less impressed with Richard Gere (The Hermit) and Christian Bale (The Firebrand), but they balance out some of the tumult. I also thought Julianne Moore misfired as a faux-Joan Baez, which is odd...maybe she can only do anachronistic drama, not comedy? The unevenness adds to the impressionistic feel: it's like watching an old-fashioned zoetrope strip with some of the images missing. You get a feel for the story even though it's choppy and unfinished. A bit overlong and at times painfully overdone: I was loving the rapidfire sequence leading up to Dylan taking the stage in Newport, right until the "assassin" metaphor went totally over the top. But overall it's enjoyably shaggy and reasonably authentic, just like the subject. Many extra points for Charlotte Gainsbourg as his long-suffering wife "Claire," making an impossible role (for if we don't know the real Bob Dylan we certainly don't know what really happened within his infamously rocky first marriage) a compelling portrayal of individual artistry squandered in the Feminine Mystique era. Oh, and the music is great. (A)

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