THIS IS 40: 4 STARS

“This is 40,” the new film from one-man comedy machine Judd Apatow, contains all the elements you expect from a midlife comedy-Viagra jokes, the ogling of younger women, cholesterol, and the perils of familiarity-and a few things you don't, like a supporting role from semi-forgotten 70s rocker Graham Parker, a careful examination of Meghan Fox's breasts and some genuine emotion.

The movie takes place in the week between Pete and Debbie's (Paul Rudd and Leslie Mann reprising their roles from “Knocked Up”) fortieth birthdays. Using his patented mix of humor, heart and vulgarity, the director explores the couple's life as they approach the milestone.

It soon becomes clear that age isn't the only issue in their lives. Although Debbie constantly lies about how old she is, larger problems include constantly warring kids (Maude and Iris Apatow)-“I can handle a nightmare,” the younger one says to her sister. “You're a nightmare everyday for me.”-an empty bank account made worse by a freeloading father (Albert Brooks), an embezzling employee and relationship doubts triggered by Debbie's loaded question, “If I hadn't gotten pregnant fourteen years ago, would we still be together?”

Let's not forget, however, that this is a comedy, so mixed into this study of midlife disappointment are some keenly honed and very funny observations. It's a blend of heart and humor, frequently in the same scene, and often in the same sentence.

Pete, who runs a failing record company-he turned down Arcade Fire and is now pinning his hopes on a revival of Graham Parker-tends to speak in music metaphors. “We're like Simon and Garfunkle,” he says to Debbie, “and you turned me into Garfunkle.” It's a funny line, delivered well, but also a loaded one that places his unhappiness front and center and it is that kind of writing and performance that makes you laugh and cringe at the same time.

This is an ensemble comedy of sorts, featuring Apatow Repertory Company regulars like Chris O'Dowd (who brightens every scene he appears in), Jason Segel, Lena Dunham (he produces her HBO show “Girls”) and Melissa McCarthy, and some newcomers to the fold like Brooks, John Lithgow and Graham Parker (who gamely allows himself to be the butt of jokes) but the center of the film is the work of Rudd and Mann.

Rudd brings his comic chops and likeability but there's also a deep undercurrent of resentment and dissatisfaction running through the character of Pete that elevates him from stock character to believable person.

Mann also has a way with a line but far from being the stereotypical wife character she steals the movie with a performance that is by times vulnerable-a scene with a hockey player who doesn't realize she is married is funny but framed with real emotion-then fierce-watch her smack down a kid who's been taunting her daughter on line-and then sensitive-same scene with the kid. It's multifaceted work that steals most of the scenes she appears in.

“This is 40” is a tad long and episodic-like snapshots from Pete and Debbie's life-and loses some steam in its final twenty minutes, but its keenly observed look at a strained marriage has rewards that far outweigh the extended running time.

JACK REACHER: 3 STARS

“Jack Reacher,” Tom Cruise's new hope for a movie franchise, is an old fashioned movie. It's the kind of movie that Steven Seagal might have starred in circa 1992. It's a bare-bones action movie and predictable but Van Dammit, taken for what it is, it's also a bit of fun.

The movie starts out with a brutal and tense sniper attack. Five random people-or are they random?-are gunned down by a disturbed military trained shooter named Barr (Joseph Sikora). He is quickly arrested, but despite almost insurmountable evidence against him assembled by a hot-shot cop (David Oyelowo) and district attorney (Richard Jenkins), he doesn't confess. Instead, refusing to speak, he writes a cryptic message, “Get Jack Reacher.” Turns out Reacher (Cruise) is a ghost, a war veteran who has been off the grid for almost two tears. When Reacher sees a news story about the case on TV, however, he comes out of hiding and work's with Barr's lawyer (Rosamund Pike) to get to the truth.

There's a light, snappy tone to “Jack Reacher” which is unexpected from a movie containing this level of violence. The banter between Jack and Helen almost sounds ripped from the script of a screwball comedy. It's not particularly funny, and the chemistry between the two is lacking, but the rat-a-tat rhythm is in place.

That's just one of the surprises offered up by this adaptation of the ninth book in the popular Reacher series by British author Lee Child. The second is an unhinged extended cameo by Werner Herzog, as the cataract infected, fingerless bad guy. He's been acting on and off since the early 1970s, and his in front of the camera work is usually as wild and wooly as his behind the camera work is brilliant. Here he outdoes himself in a memorable scene that gives new meaning to the meaning of the word frostbite.

That scene is an off kilter treat in a movie that mostly plays it straight. The unvarnished violence-punches in the face that look like they really hurt-and unadorned action scenes-director Christopher McQuarrie has not used music in the car chase and fight scenes, which gives them a real sense of immediacy-all work well. Those parts the movie gets right. Unfortunately it's a long movie with lots of other parts between the boffo scenes.

Richard Jenkins is wasted in a generic pay cheque role and Reacher's habit of connecting the evidentiary dots is pushes the limits of credulity, but Cruise (in Sherlock Holmes mode when he's not swinging fists) sells it with a combination of swagger and cold-blooded charisma. Van Dame or Sly Stallone might have been more fun in the role, but Cruise, despite not being anywhere the size of Reacher from the books- 6' 5" tall (1.96m) with a 50-inch chest, and weighing between 210 and 250 pounds-he's a big enough star to pull it off.

The elephant in the room is how the subject of a random mass shooting will play with audiences just one week after the Newtown, Connecticut school massacre. The sniper scenes are effectively done, and comprise some of the best work in the film, but may be upsetting to some viewers.

“Jack Reacher” is a fun but violent ride, that should keep fans of Cruise's actionman persona happy until the next “Mission Impossible” movie comes along.

THE GUILT TRIP: 4 STARS

The last time Barbra Streisand starred in a movie people were still unironically doing "The Macarena." In 1996 she headlined "The Mirror Has Two Faces," a romantic dramedy opposite Jeff Bridges. She may not be the romantic lead anymore-and I'd bet my copy of “Funny Girl” she's never danced “The Macarena”-but "The Guilt Trip" proves she can still carry a movie.

Striesand plays Joyce, the widowed mother of Andrew (Seth Rogen), an uptight organic chemist based in California. He's on the road flogging his new coconut and soy cleaning product-so safe you can drink it! --to distributors. On a stopover at his mom's house in New Jersey the pair have a heart-to-heart that prompts Andrew to invite her along as he drives to San Francisco.

The name Seth Rogen brings along with it certain expectations. But the trademarked blend of heartfelt vulgarity that has served him so well in movies like "Knocked Up" and "Zach and Miri Make a Porno" is absent here. "That's enough with the street talk," says Joyce when Andrew curses at the dinner table, and for the most part he obeys.

So minus the vulgarity "The Guilt Trip" is left with heartfelt, but rather than a big mushy pile of sentiment, the movie expertly presents a generational odd couple comedy ripe with chemistry.

Streisand's version of Joyce isn't a radical departure from mother characters we've seen before; she has trouble using her cellphone, asks too many questions about ex-girlfriends and insists on using coupons. What sets her apart from the normal comedic mom is the sense of longing and loss she brings to certain scenes. She can deliver a funny line but also bring the emotional heft necessary to separate this from the run-of-the-mill parent comedy (i.e. her less nuanced work in the "Fokker" films.)

Rogen cedes center stage to her, handing in a restrained performance that serves as a solid surface for Streisand to bounce off. They have natural chemistry and their relationship is a nice change from the usual father-and-son set-up so often milked for comedic purposes.

Based on a semi-autobiographical screenplay from Dan Fogelman, who went on a road trip with his mom, "The Guilt Trip" has many familiar elements-and more than a few predictable story turns-but Streisand's skill and chemistry with Rogen make it a trip worth taking.

THE IMPOSSIBLE: 4 ½ STARS

Naomi Watts has battled Japanese spirits and domesticated a twenty-five foot tall ape, but in “The Impossible” she confronts a natural disaster she can't tame-the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami which devastated fourteen countries bordering the Indian Ocean, claiming 230,000 lives.

Watts and Ewan McGregor are Henry and Maria, Japan-based-Brits who travel to Thailand for Christmas with their three kids Lucas (Tom Holland), Simon (Oaklee Pendergast) and Thomas (Samuel Joslin). Relaxing at a tony beachside resort, mom is lounging by the pool reading a book while dad splashes around with the kids. Suddenly a wave the height of an office building comes inland, destroying everything in its path and separating the family who float in different directions during the melee.

The first hour focuses on Maria and Lucas as they try and reach safety before switching gears to henry's search for his wife and son.

In the immediate aftermath of the wave there isn't much dialogue, just intense scenes of survival. Director Juan Antonio Bayona takes his time, really showing the immense power of the wave as it sweeps people, cars and even houses aside. It is harrowing stuff that hammers home the absolute helplessness of being in a situation governed by Mother Nature.

The second part of the story is more conventional, though still potent. Henry's search for his wife is the stuff of action films, but McGregor brings some highly charged emotion to what could have been a standard against-all-odds scenario.

McGregor is good, but it is the kids and Watts that stick. As a mother who presses through injury to get her son to safety Watts is raw and real. It's a great performance that will likely get recognized in award season.

The kids, particularly Holland as eldest Lucas, are naturals, and guaranteed to tug at your heartstrings. Bring a towel to soak up the tears.

“The Impossible” is more than simply the story of the tsunami or the family, it is about humanity's ability to pull together in times of crisis; of those moments when a small gesture, like a hug or a fresh shirt can make a world of difference. It's about people at their best in the worst of situations, and even though the ending is a bit pat, it makes you believe that there can be happy coincidences even in chaos.

NOT FADE AWAY: 2 STARS

There's an old saying that goes, “If you can remember the 1960s… you weren't really there.” That may be true. Ask Grace Slick about 1968 and you're likely to be met with a blank stare. Luckily for us “Not Fade Away,” the feature debut from “The Sopranos” creator David Chase, is a spot on time capsule of the era. Too bad Chase didn't write a story to go along with it.

The core of the story revolves around rock 'n' blues music, Doug (John Magaro) and the repercussions of living in a turbulent decade. Doug is invisible in high school-particularly to his crush Grace (Bella Heathcoat)-until he discovers a fundamental truth, girls like guys in bands. Playing drums in a Stones-influenced band gives him a taste of the life, but when he switches to lead sing he finds his vocation, much to his father's (James Gandolfini,) dismay. As the Summer of Love approaches so does interest from a recording industry big shot just as Doug contemplates a move to the West Coast to pursue his dream of solo success.

“Not Fade Away” is at least partly autobiographical. Chase was a New Jersey drummer with a Stones fixation, which explains the level of care placed on the details, but it is hard to whip up excitement for a movie that tips its hand in the opening narration.

We're told off the bat that this is the story of a band that never made it. It's an anticlimactic way to start a film, and doesn't get any grabbier from there. It is interesting to watch Chase establish the time and place. The film is a cornucopia of 60s pop culture. The song “Satisfaction” blends effortlessly with the old-school Emergency Broadcast System alarm off the top, heralding a greatest hits of 60s cultural icons like “The twilight Zone,” Archie comics, JFK's assassination, even a sneering Dean Martin rolling his eyes after a Stones's performance on “The Hollywood Palace,” with the words “They're leaving right after the show for London-they're challenging the Beatles to a hair-pulling contest.”

All that nicely sets up the decade and the anti-establishment stance personified by the soundtrack's music, but is let down by episodic storytelling and the lack of really compelling characters or situations. From the opening moments the story builds to an anti-climax, and on that score it delivers, providing one of the oddest and least satisfying conclusions to a movie in recent memory.

As an exercise in nostalgia “Not fade Away” mostly works, but like many trips down memory lane, the people you meet aren't always as interesting as you remember them.

ON THE ROAD: 4 ½ STARS

At one point in “On the Road,” the new film version of the famous Jack Kerouac novel, a character says, “Bless me father for I will sin.” Many of the fans of the book may take that line as a mea culpa from director Walter Salles, who has dared to bring a novel long thought to be unfilmable to the screen. Beatnik purists need not worry. There are sins on display, just none of the cinematic kind.

Proto beats Dean and Sal (Garrett Hedlund and Sam Riley) spit in the eye of authority and embark on an existential search for self on the self-awareness, friendship and the "rainy night of America." Along the way jazz happens, the discovery of the "joy of pure being" is revealed to be fleeting, and the central question, How are we to live? goes unanswered.

“On the Road,” the novel and movie, isn't a piece of art to be explained, it needs to be experienced. The film, like the book is uneventful-nothing resembling an actual story actually happens-but both reverberate with the pulse of be bop jazz. Salles has created a movie populated by fascinating characters played by good actors who live in rhythm to the freeform structure of the story.

It's a road trip that sees people come and go, relationships formed and broken and hearts broken. At the center of it all are two souls, Dean Moriarty and Sal Paradise (Kerouac's pseudonym ion the book), bound together by friendship and restless spirits.

Dean is described as someone who spent 1/3 of his time in jail, 1/3 in pool halls and a 1/3 in public libraries. He's one of the towering characters of American literature and is brought to vivid life by Garrett Hedlund. A charming rascal, he's deeply self-involved, a hip cat but in reality, the most desperate character in the bunch.

Refusing to take responsibility for himself or his actions he's the bad boy your mom warned you about and Hedlund embodies it.

But as good as Hedlund is, the movie belongs to Sam Riley, the English actor most distinguished for playing Ian Curtis in the film “Control,” the biopic about the lead singer of Joy Division, is the beating heart of the movie.

Supporting characters come and go. Viggo Mortensen brings edge to his brief portrayal Old Bull Lee (a thinly disguised William S. Burroughs). Kirsten Dunst is shows the deep ache of jilted Camille and Kristen Stewart plays lovesick Marylou as a strong, but vulnerable victim of Dean's charm.

Some will find ”On the Road” aimless, others will be swept along by its ride, the beautiful photography and the search for meaning.