The best way to approach "The Cabin in the Woods" is to go into the theater knowing nothing about it. This very clever horror-comedy concerns five college friends (led by Chris Hemsworth) who head out to an isolated cabin for some R and R only to have their weekend of depraved high jinks get interrupted by, well, something terrible. Co-written and produced by Joss Whedon, "Cabin" prepares us for a de rigueur splatter film and then twists the knife with one surprising development after another. Some of the movie's internal logic doesn't hold up to scrutiny, but "Cabin" is darkly funny, unexpectedly moving, and consistently thought-provoking in its dissection of horror-movie tropes. And its cast (particularly Richard Jenkins and Kristen Connolly) deftly navigates the film's bracing, off-kilter tone.
We tend not to think of Guy Pearce and "action hero" in the same sentence, but the superb actor may change that impression in 2012. This summer he'll be in "Prometheus," but before then there's "Lockout," a dopey but diverting sci-fi flick in which he plays the one man who can infiltrate an outer-space prison and rescue the president's daughter (Maggie Grace) during the midst of a violent mutiny. So, yes, it's essentially "Die Hard in Space," and Pearce does a decent job giving this overly caffeinated B-movie the right amount of teasing irony. Sadly, though, "Lockout" won't win any points for originality, and there's too much macho chest-pounding going on for Pearce and Grace to strike up any sort of rapport. If Pearce indeed wants to become the new Bruce Willis, you hope next time around he'll find a script that doesn't shackle him this badly.
Incarceration of a much more serious nature serves as the centerpiece of "The Lady," an earnest biopic of Burmese activist Aung San Suu Kyi, who spent several years over the last two decades under house arrest after protesting her country's lack of free elections. Disappointingly, this drama tends to look at Suu Kyi (played with quiet dignity by Michelle Yeoh) as more of a blandly inspirational freedom fighter than as a flesh-and-blood person. David Thewlis proves exceptional as Suu Kyi's fiercely loyal husband trying to arrange her release, but ultimately a well-intentioned group of actors and filmmakers have reduced her remarkable life to dull Oscar bait.
Speaking of the Academy Awards, "Monsieur Lazhar" was one of this year's deserving nominees for best foreign language film. Finally arriving in theaters, this Canadian drama stars Fellag as Bachir Lazhar, an Algerian immigrant recently moved to Montreal who steps in for a popular grade school teacher who committed suicide. Largely sidestepping inspirational-teacher cliches, the genuinely lovely "Monsieur Lazhar" convincingly grapples with the challenges involved in educating the young. Fellag does wonderfully understated work as a man trying to hide his own emotional scars, and first-timer Sophie Nelisse breaks your heart as one of his sweet, sensitive students.
Krysten Ritter's new sitcom, "Don't Trust the B---- in Apartment 23," debuted this week, but she also stars in "L!fe Happens," a rather unappealing look at single motherhood and female friendship. Ritter plays Kim, an L.A. party girl whose life has changed radically since she accidentally got pregnant a year ago. Though Kim loves her son, her new grownup responsibilities leave her feeling disconnected from her best friend, Deena (Kate Bosworth), who still enjoys the life of a carefree single gal. Romantic complications and "zany" misunderstandings ensue, but this comedy (which Ritter co-wrote) never rises above a slick vapidity that infantilizes the serious themes it pretends to explore.
A little less seriousness would have helped "Blue Like Jazz," a terribly sincere coming-of-age tale whose only novelty is its religious message. Donald (Marshall Allman of "True Blood") is a devout Southern Baptist living in Texas who, in a moment of doubt about his faith, enrolls in a liberal Oregon school. The resulting culture clash is anchored by Allman's likable performance as a sheltered young man who turns his back on God, but "Blue Like Jazz" can't shake a general lethargy. Director Steve Taylor seems more concerned with delivering a message about the importance of spirituality than he is in offering an affecting character drama.
But at least a stilted message is better than nonstop snarky irreverence. That's the lesson I took away from "Detention," a witless, desperately smug satire of high school comedies and slasher films. The story follows Clapton (Josh Hutcherson) and Riley (Shanley Caswell) as they contend with a mysterious serial killer who's knocking off their classmates. Less a movie than a string of pop-culture references forming a slack narrative, "Detention" is the sort of misbegotten indie that a rising star like Hutcherson ("The Hunger Games," "The Kids Are All Right") would probably prefer that you never knew existed. After sitting through it, I wish I were so lucky.