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Film times and brief film reviews

Film times are good from Thursday, Dec. 25, through Friday, Jan. 2

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Our rating system uses zero to four stars. If a movie has no rating, it has not been reviewed. Signed reviews by Laura Boyes (LB), Grayson Currin (DGC), David Fellerath (DF), Nathan Gelgud (NG), Kathy Justice (KJ), Neil Morris (NM), Bryan Reed (BR), Zack Smith (ZS), Sam Wardle (SW).

Opening This Week

BEDTIME STORIES—This is the one where Adam Sandler's bedtime stories come true. If only the kids were a little more imaginative, maybe he wouldn't survive. Rated PG.

THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON—Brad Pitt fails to make the most of a meaty role in this curious film, based on a 1922 F. Scott Fitzgerald story, about an orphan who ages backward. Benjamin Button, born an osteophytic infant, sets out on a Forrest Gump-like life of adventure, no coincidence since Gump scribe Eric Roth was charged with the adaptation of this film as well. Cate Blanchett gives a sturdy performance as Benjamin's lifelong love interest, but the only thing that mollifies the excruciating 167-minute running time is director David Fincher (Se7en; Zodiac), who paints a lush, imaginative canvas. For all its highbrow aspirations, however, the film remains a gimmick in search of a message. Read our review on page 21. Rated PG-13. —NM

DOUBT—Sister Aloysius Beauvier (Meryl Streep)—Mother Superior at a Catholic school in the Bronx circa 1964—hurls herself into proving her suspicions of an improper relationship between a 12-year-old student and the church's charismatic new priest, Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Showcasing a surfeit of murky epistemology, this film adaptation of writer-director John Patrick Shanley's award-winning play never shakes the stagy strictures of its original incarnation. However, Roger Deakins' gorgeously austere cinematography and a uniformly fine cast—led by Streep, Hoffman and Viola Davis in a memorable supporting turn—contribute to the film's overall success. Read our review on page 21. Rated PG-13. —NM

FROST/ NIXON—The 1977 televised interview of disgraced President Richard M. Nixon, conducted by British television personality David Frost, is one of those cultural moments that most of us under the age of 38 are woefully unfamiliar with. But with Frost/ Nixon, Ron Howard's entertaining adaptation of Peter Morgan's play, this touchstone television moment will be added to the cultural memory bank of a new generation. Deft performances by Michael Sheen and Frank Langella, reprising their stage roles, make a potentially dull story riveting. However, the same complaints of inaccuracy leveled against the play dog this film, proving yet again that nothing about America's most disgraced president is uncontroversial. Read our review on page 21. Rated R. —DF

GHAJINI—Advance publicity for Ghajini (reportedly a Bollywood version of the thriller Memento) has blanketed the Indian media market with photos of Aamir Khan's newly buff bod and scary shaved haircut. But, Aamir's only film last year, Taare Zamin Par, which he both directed and starred in, is India's submission to the Oscars, so this one could be good. Time will tell. —LB

Owen Wilson and Jennifer Aniston star in Marley and Me. - PHOTO BY BARRY WETCHER/ TWENTIETH CENTURY FOX
  • Photo by Barry Wetcher/ Twentieth Century Fox
  • Owen Wilson and Jennifer Aniston star in Marley and Me.
MARLEY AND ME—Hollywood seems to have forgotten that some perfectly normal people do not live in $3 million lofts off Park Avenue. For that reason alone, Marley and Me (based on the best-selling memoir by John Grogan) is worth seeing. Rather than placing its story in the context of a movie star lifestyle, this surprisingly poignant film opens with a couple (Owen Wilson and Jennifer Aniston) driving crappy used cars and living in a cramped bungalow (albeit near a sun-soaked beach). Wilson and Aniston are not exactly dramatic heavyweights, but they both deliver what made them famous in the first place: charm and believability. Wilson is at his everyman best as a slightly henpecked columnist who loves his dog and his wife in equal measure, but a script that digresses into Hallmark territory at the end, plus a few too many "moving" montages, holds Marley and Me back from classic pet film status. Still, the little dose of real life offers a pleasant release valve for a Christmas movie season filled with surrealism, computer-generated spaceships and heady, depressing drama. Rated PG. —SW

THE SPIRIT—Written and directed by Frank Miller (Sin City, 300) and based on comics giant Will Eisner's 1940s series. With Gabriel Macht, Samuel L. Jackson, Eva Mendes and Scarlett Johansson. Rated PG-13.

VALKYRIE—Director Bryan Singer drops us squarely into the action of the "July 20 plot" of 1944 to kill Adolf Hitler, eschewing any examination of the plotters' backstories or motives. However, illustrating the procedural aspects of the plot is where Valkyrie shines, thanks to Singer's finely tuned pacing and lavish production values. Even Tom Cruise's ill-fitting American accent gets forgotten amid the actor's trademark intensity and a cadre of British actors—Bill Nighy, Kenneth Branagh, Terence Stamp and Tom Wilkinson—giving their crisp, buttoned-up best in key supporting roles. Read our review on page 20. Rated PG-13. —NM

Current Releases

AUSTRALIAAustralia is no less than a Gone with the Wind for the new millennium. Director Baz Luhrmann layers the Western, the war movie and the romantic epic together with conniving villains and meditations on race and history into an absorbing and eye-catching tour de force. Lady Sarah Ashley (Nicole Kidman), an uptight aristocrat, arrives in her remote Australian cattle station to find her husband murdered. She prevails upon The Drover (Hugh Jackman) for help, and ravishing romance soon follows. Luhrmann says he dreamed of making an epic about his homeland that echoed the adventure films he loved as a boy, and Australia is a fine addition to the canon of classic films about resourceful people living in tumultuous times. Luhrmann, however, seems to have taken the "epic" moniker rather seriously—his film is around three hours long (isn't it time to reinvent the intermission, too?)—and while it does have its longeurs (and two or three climaxes), its rip-roaring pace rarely flags. Rated R. —LB

BOLT—The star of this 3-D animated spectacle is a small white shepard (voiced by John Travolta) who's lived his whole life as the star of his own action TV show, in which he possesses superpowers and does battle alongside his owner, a young girl named Penny (Miley Cyrus). After Bolt gets accidentally airmailed off the studio lot, he embarks on a cross-country journey back to Hollywood, aided by a loner feline and an over-caffeinated, TV-addicted hamster. A cleverer plot would delve more into the film's central query of whether it is better to live an extraordinary fantasy or a mundane reality. Bolt bears the earmarks of good breeding, its dramatic bite doesn't quite match up to its bark. Rated PG. —NM

CADILLAC RECORDS—An anthology of rags-to-riches stories unfolds under the revolving 45 RPM record sign of Chicago's influential Chess Records. Adrien Brody plays Leonard Chess (but what happened to his brother, Phil?), a Jewish junk dealer with a hankerin' for the blues. Essentially plotless, the film follows the intertwined careers of Muddy Waters (Jeffrey Wright), Little Walter (Columbus Short) and Etta James (Beyoncé) with substantial cameos by Mos Def as Chuck Berry, Cedric the Entertainer as Willie Dixon (who also narrates) and an electrifying Eamonn Walker as Howlin' Wolf. Truth is stretched (Leonard Chess and Etta James, really?), invented (when exactly did Muddy plug in that guitar?) and glossed over (who did make all the money?) and it runs out of steam by the time there is a ludicrous appearance by ersatz Rolling Stones. But if you want a bluesy pass-time, give it a spin. Rated R. —LB

A CHRISTMAS TALE—Director Arnaud Desplechin's A Christmas Tale is the story of an artsy, often eccentric family who love to talk, argue and obsess over the minutiae of their relationships. Junon, the mother, is stricken with an illness that requires a marrow transplant; this development brings three generations together to get tested for compatibility, drink two cellars worth of wine, and get reacquainted with one another. Desplechin has made a thorough, complex, funny movie, rigorous in its emotional content, perhaps exhausting, definitely exuberant. It is not only the best movie I've seen this year—it embodies what narrative movies could and should be. Not rated. —NG

THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL—Although ostensibly a remake of Robert Wise's 1951 Cold War sci-fi classic, this misbegotten spectacle could be easily confused with some ghastly, Roland Emmerich-produced hybrid of Independence Day and The Day After Tomorrow, only more skilled at product placement than plot development. This go 'round, alien emissary Klaatu (Keanu Reeves) and his metallic bodyguard Gort visit Earth with aims to exterminate mankind for causing global warming. Along the way, the demi-messianic Klaatu befriends a widowed microbiologist (Jennifer Connelly, perfectly cast since her affect resembles that of a pod person) and her obnoxious stepson (Jaden Smith, Will's son), who must race to save the world from some really bad CGI. Rated PG-13. —NM

FOUR CHRISTMASES—Hollywood's newest mass-market holiday film is not great cinema, but neither is it like any other Christmas movie of recent years. Though Four Christmases wraps itself up nicely with the requisite heartwarming ending, along the way it drops some napalm on the Hollywood myth of the nuclear family. Vince Vaughn and Reese Witherspoon—leading a cast that includes Sissy Spacek, Dwight Yoakam, a cougar-ish Mary Steenburgen and Jon Voight—play yuppies of highly dysfunctional origins who are forced to spend Christmas day jogging between a quartet of divorced and profoundly maladjusted parents. The results are sometimes hilarious, often disturbing and occasionally both (Duvall: "I don't want to talk disrespectfully about your mother on Christmas... But that woman is a cheap whore!"). A schmaltzy climax and tasteless potty humor only reinforce a cynical but oddly liberating message: For some, the best place to spend the holidays is as far from home as possible. Rated PG-13. —SW

HAPPY-GO-LUCKYHappy-Go-Lucky is a portrait of a primary school teacher named Poppy, a character who could have been an obnoxious wide-eyed optimist but is in this film a unique, believable young woman with an exacting wit and nimble perception, always equipped with a comeback. She's the antidote to vapid movie happiness, the anti-Amélie. Mike Leigh's film has an unforced flow, driven by the steady, often silly stream of Poppy's zingers, comebacks, one-liners, and mini-monologues. Sally Hawkins' performance carries the movie, baring the multiple layers of her character's charm and intellect. Rated R. —NG

HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL 3: SENIOR YEAR—Poured from the same fount as Hannah Montana, the Jonas Brothers and The Cheetah Girls, this megawatt Disney Channel movie franchise finds its heritage in the cardigan karaoke of the 1950s, the beach party films of the 1960s, and Fame in the 1980s. Rated G. —NM

LET THE RIGHT ONE INLet the Right One In, a precious Swedish vampire movie directed by Tomas Alfredson, is a critical success and an art house hit, being met with the kind of hushed awe with which the movie regards itself. It takes place in a small town, following the characters of Oskar—a shy, bullied preteen—and his new next door neighbor, Eli—a well-meaning, standoffish vampire girl. Lingering on his neatly arranged set-ups, rarely moving the camera, Alfredson has created the illusion of something contemplative—profound, even. But his film uses the metaphor-ready vampire template to tell a shopworn story about a bullied kid who finds refuge with another outcast. Call it backlash if you like, but I think Let the Right One In is a phony film. Rated R. —NG

MADAGASCAR: ESCAPE 2 AFRICA—The best thing that can be said about this animated sequel is that it will entertain youngsters under the age of 10. Of course, the same can be said about an animatronic jug band at Chuck E. Cheese's, which might, come to think of it, rival the second Madagascar film in plot depth and originality. For kids, the plotting merely marks time between appearances by Sacha Baron Cohen's hyperactive, self-assured lemur Julien. For everyone else, only the return of those sardonic penguins provides any real chuckles. Rated PG. —NM

MILK—A necessary film that's long overdue: The latest from Gus Van Sant is the story of Harvey Milk (Sean Penn), the gay rights activist and San Francisco city supervisor who was slain by a colleague in 1978. As a biopic of an iconic figure, it manages to be noble without being full of itself, while providing plenty of the little pleasures of movie-going. Milk is a rallying cry for those already "recruited" (as Milk himself might jokily call them) to the cause of gay rights, and it's accessible enough for the open-minded who might still need convincing. Rated R. —NG

NOTHING LIKE THE HOLIDAYS—A crew of Latino heavyweights (Alfred Molino, John Leguizamo, Freddy Rodriquez), along with the white-breaded Debra Messing, deliver a familiar yarn—albeit spiced up with a little Puerto Rican flash—about family solidarity in the Christmas season. On Christmas, three absentee offspring return to their family home in Chicago's Humboldt Park to find their father and mother in marital disharmony. Unraveling itself into a series of mini-tragedies followed by plastic tear-jerking epiphanies (revolving around the topics of gang violence, lost love, infidelity and recovering from war), we see the film follow family members from emotional wrecks to pillars of strength when a medical emergency strikes. Similar to The Family Stone, the film succeeds in gluing together its dysfunctional clan under heart wrenching circumstances, but cheapens its own tenor with overplayed ethnic stereotypes. Rated PG-13. —KJ

PUNISHER: WAR ZONE—The once-great Marvel Comics series continues its downward slide with the second film in a franchise that is starting to look suspiciously like straight-to-video material. Attention, fans of The Wire: Dominic "McNulty" West plays Jigsaw, the archenemy of the title character. Rated R.

QUANTUM OF SOLACE—Despite its heralded reboot with Daniel Craig as a buffer, badder and meaner Bond, the latest entry in the 007 franchise is filled with conservative fodder that is surprisingly dependent on plot devices and ideas from earlier, less edgy incarnations. This time, Bond chases a shadowy syndicate, QUANTUM, that has infiltrated MI6 and the CIA, evoking the Red Scare fears of the 1950s. The villain du jour is the lamely dubbed Dominic Greene (whatever happened to Oddjob and May Day?), played by Mathieu Amalric. What elevates even this middling Bond chapter is the presence of Craig. His 007 is taciturn and seemingly emotionally cold, but he is actually a more human Bond, one who bleeds when injured and constantly does battle with his stifling neuroses. Rated PG-13. —NM

RAB NE BANA DI JODI (GOD MATCHES A COUPLE)—Surinder (Shah Rukh Khan), a mousy Punjab Power Company cubicle drone, attempts to make his vivacious younger wife Taani (newcomer Anushka Sharma) fall in love with him despite their cold arranged marriage. He has his best friend, hairdresser Bobby (Vinay Pathak), give him a trendy makeover, so he can conceal his identity from his wife while the two compete together in the "Dancing Jodi" contest. It's not exactly Slumdog Millionaire, but rather a prime example of the escapist fantasies that fuel that grittier movie. Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi is a delight for a full 75 percent of the film, until the plot falls to pieces in a sumo wresting ring and never quite recovers. Shah Rukh Khan charms as the geeky everyman, whose concept of a cool guy is also hopelessly dorky. Writer-director Aditya Chopra made SRK a superstar with Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge in 1995, and they both gleefully deconstruct his "Raj" hero character, the Bollywood gold standard for romance in the last decade. Entertaining, but frustratingly imperfect. Not rated. —LB

RACHEL GETTING MARRIED—Anne Hathaway plays Kym, a recovering junkie who comes home for her sister Rachel's wedding. Kym blames her insecurities on her family, even as she tries to make amends with Rachel (Rosemarie DeWitt). While too many scenes focus on Kym and Rachel hammering out their differences, a fine supporting cast and Jonathan Demme's keen eye for how to direct the large ensemble of wedding guests makes Rachel much better than its limp premise promises. Rated R. —NG

SEVEN POUNDS—Will Smith is too famous for his own good. His latest vehicle suffers for it. Instead of seeing Ben Thomas, the guilt-ridden IRS agent turned personal savior to seven strangers, we see Will Smith, the effortlessly charismatic celebrity, playing the role of Ben Thomas. Seven Pounds—melodramatic, though it may be—could function as a character study revolving around the protagonist's shattered ego and extreme selflessness at least as much as it focuses on the obligatory and predictable romance between Smith and Rosario Dawson. But Smith, despite his best efforts, will always be Will Smith in our eyes. This, of course, is in the grand tradition of American celebrity (was Marilyn Monroe ever anybody other than Marilyn Monroe?), but even though Smith is certainly a competent actor in this piece—his character's reluctance to accept affection is particularly adept—his fame has overshadowed his talent. Rated PG-13. —BR

SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE—Blending historical perspective, grim reality, whimsy and starry-eyed romance, director Danny Boyle (Trainspotting) crafts a masterful cinematic masala about an 18-year-old Muslim and former street orphan suspected of cheating during his successful run on a Hindi version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? His resulting torture and interrogation reveals the details of his hardscrabble life. The script for this epic character-driven, post-modern Dickensian tale deftly incorporates much of India's religious/ cultural conflict and transformation. But, at the film's heart beats a redemptive, romantic, rags-to-rajah fable that transcends its jaundiced milieu. Rated R. —NM

SOUL MEN—Louis Hinds (Samuel L. Jackson) and Floyd Henderson (Bernie Mac) are former backup singers in a 1960s R&B trio who became estranged after their lead left for a solo career. After their ex-partner dies, Hinds and Henderson call a truce and embark on a road trip for a tribute concert at Harlem's Apollo Theater. The result is a satisfying mix of hilarity and melancholy, the latter fueled by the recognition that Mac and Isaac Hayes, who makes a cameo, did not live to see this film's release. Rated R. —NM

SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK—Charlie Kaufman makes his directorial debut with Synecdoche, New York, and it's the best thing he's ever been attached to. Philip Seymour Hoffman plays Caden Cotard, a deeply depressed theater director who uses a MacArthur grant to launch a massive project that is doomed to incompletion from the outset. Despite its gloomy subject and depressed central character, this is a fun film, and it works through its plethora of preoccupations—sickness, death, marriage, cleanliness, gender, depression, the illusory nature of time to name a few—with uncanny precision. Rated R. —NG

TALE OF DESPEREAUX—A surfeit of celebrities phone in near-comatose voicework in this dreary animated fable, most notable for its preponderance of stolen ideas. A rat (Dustin Hoffman) with a love for fine cuisine (ala Ratatouille) is chased down the sewer into a dystopic ratopolis (Flushed Away) after he startles a queen and causes a fatal heart attack. Meanwhile, an adventure-seeking misfit mouse (Matthew Broderick) gets banished to the recesses of Ratworld after breaking mouse law by cavorting with humans (Ratatouille again). Toss in a fairy tale princess (Emma Watson), a royalty-mad handmaiden (Tracey Ullman), Sigourney Weaver's flat narration, and rather lackluster animation, and you've got a tranquilizing kids' flick devoid of humor, rhythm or charm. Rated G. —NM

TRANSPORTER 3—This third installment of the Luc Besson-produced action series follows the template of its predecessors, serving up plenty of road rage fights in slow motion, as well as the inevitable explosions that follow. Though the first two Transporter films were brainless, they were occasionally fun. This one? Forget it. Rated PG-13. —KJ

TWILIGHT—Setting aside the juvie frenzy associated with Stephanie Meyer's bestselling Twilight series, fact is every couple of years another incarnation of the vampire myth rises from the grave and sinks its teeth into pop culture. Unfortunately, director Catherine Hardwicke's turgid adaptation of a tale of forbidden teen love more closely resembles the pilot for a midseason replacement on The CW. When angst-ridden Bella Swann (Kristen Stewart) relocates to the Pacific Northwest, hunky yet aloof "teen" vampire Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson) takes a liking to her and hopes his love overcomes his desire to drink her blood. Little happens in this dalliance besides mediocre acting and even worse dialogue spoken by actors who look as though they prepared for their roles by watching a One Tree Hill marathon interspersed with Abercrombie & Fitch ads. Rated PG-13. —NM

YES MAN—This occasionally touching and often funny fourth feature directed by Raleigh native Peyton Reed follows Carl (Jim Carrey), a weak-willed bank lender, who attends a cultish self-help seminar where he's (unconvincingly) convinced to start replying in the affirmative to every question he's asked. As a result, he meets a girl, gets a promotion, and starts having a hell of a good time saying 'yes'. Reed's last movie, The Break-Up, derived a weird kind of zeal from the fact that his serious direction was out of proportion with the film's ineffective content. In Yes Man there are no traces of visual expression, and no feeling that anything unexpected could happen. It's too bad, because it's clear from his other work that Reed could eventually get good at making sharp-looking comedies. Rated PG-13. —NG


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