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Capsule Reviews For Current Releases 

OPENING

Cage/Cunningham (France, 1981) - This documentary explores the collaborations between dancer Merce Cunningham and composer John Cage. Cleveland Museum of Art Recital Hall. At 7 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 4. Lola Montes (France, 1952) - A restored version of Max Ophuls' final film, an epic about the celebrity- and scandal-obsessed France of the 19th century. Cleveland Institute of Art Cinematheque. At 9:30 p.m. Friday, Jan. 30; 7:15 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 31; and 4 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 1.

Merce Cunningham: A Lifetime of Dance (US, 2000) - Charles Atlas directs this overview of the American dancer and choreographer. Cleveland Museum of Art Lecture Hall. At 1:30 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 1.

Momma's Man (US, 2008) - When thirtysomething Mikey (Matt Boren) curls up in his bed in Momma's Man, it's like he's returning to the womb. Since Mikey has just canceled his return flight to L.A., where his wife and infant daughter await him, it's a safe bet that retreating into a cocoon is what his extended visit with Mom and Dad (Flo and Ken Jacobs) is all about. The longer Mikey stays at his folks' New York City loft, the more he regresses. He puts on a superhero cape from his childhood, picks up the guitar he hasn't played since high school and even retrieves a breakup letter from an old girlfriend that re-ignites long-suppressed emotions. As Mikey strums his guitar in the middle of the night, the look on his parents' faces as they lie in bed listening to his impromptu jam session is pricelessly funny. But writer-director Azazel Jacobs isn't interested in making an Apatow-ian comedy about boy-men in a state of arrested development. Instead, Jacobs, who cast his own parents as Mikey's mother and father, is more interested in a sort of billet-doux to parents in general, and to the lingering shadows they leave on the lives of their progeny. Cleveland Museum of Art Lecture Hall. At 7 p.m. Friday, Jan. 30. (Milan Paurich)

Otto: Or, Up with Dead People (Germany/Canada, 2008) - If you like your zombies gay, sexually promiscuous and very, very hungry, Canadian provocateur Bruce LaBruce's (The Raspberry Reich) latest work delivers the goods - and the entrails. While LaBruce probably fashions himself a spiritual descendent of previous bad-boy gay auteurs like Germany's Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Rosa von Praunheim, he's actually more of a rainbow-flag successor to sensationalist schlockmeisters like Doris Wishman or Herschel Gordon Lewis. Yet it's precisely LaBruce's in-your-face salaciousness that makes his agitprop exploitation films such a hoot. Otto himself (neurasthenic Jey Crisfar) is the least amusing aspect of the movie. Pardon the pun, but he's a bit of a stiff. Cleveland Institute of Art Cinematheque. At 8:35 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 29 and 8:35 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 1. 1/2 (Paurich)

Pray the Devil Back to Hell (US, 2008) - This well-intentioned, if not especially artful documentary by Gini Reticker examines the efforts of a group of Liberian women (both Christian and Muslim) to put an end to the sectarian violence which has been plaguing their country for decades. Like a real-life version of Aristophanes' Lysistrata, these iron ladies stopped at nothing - including withholding sex from their mates - to help topple the genocidal regime of president Charles Taylor. The most compelling moments of the film are direct-to-camera testimonials by some of the female activists who offer first-hand accounts of their struggle to achieve peace. Cleveland Institute of Art Cinematheque. At 7 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 29 and 7 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 1. 1/2 (Paurich)

Summertime (Britain/US, 1955) - Katherine Hepburn stars in David Lean's film about an American vacationing in Venice. Cleveland Institute of Art Cinematheque. At 5:15 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 31.

ONGOING

Bride Wars - Emma (Anne Hathaway) and Liv (Kate Hudson) are best friends who've dreamed of getting married at New York's Plaza Hotel ever since they were kids. So when their respective weddings accidentally get booked on the same day, neither is willing to give up the date. Things get nasty as the two engage in the catfight of all catfights, going to great lengths to sabotage the other's wedding. Emma starts anonymously sending Liv cookies and candy so she won't be able to fit into her wedding dress, and Liv switches the sentimental video Emma plans to play at her wedding with racy spring-break footage. And try as she might, wedding planner Marion St. Claire (Candice Bergen) just can't get the girls to make up. Of course, it's not giving too much away to say the sisters eventually work it out for themselves in this predictable movie that's too cute for its own good. (Jeff Niesel)

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button - Director David Fincher bookends The Curious Case of Benjamin Button with two pieces of American history: U.S. troops fighting in World War I and the looming threat of Hurricane Katrina. In between, a timeline of historical and not-so-historical events plays out as one man grows up, or more accurately, becomes a boy. "There are no rules," Benjamin (Brad Pitt) says of his unconventional life. And the movie does play around with convention. Still, it's Fincher's most traditional film. He's never been so sentimental or aimed this high. He stages nearly every scene with an awe that mirrors Benjamin's. By the time he reaches his 20s, Benjamin has 60 years behind him. As a result, he never really feels like he belongs. This charming fantasy, however, fits right in with other end-of-the-year Oscar hopefuls. (Michael Gallucci)

Defiance - There's a scene in Defiance - the true story of a group of Jews who take refuge in the woods of Poland during World War II - where a Soviet army commander tells star Daniel Craig "Jews don't fight." Craig, as one of the four Bielski brothers who form the woodland community, snaps back, "These Jews fight." And that's pretty much what Defiance comes down to: Jews with guns who retreat to the Polish woods to avoid a Nazi invasion. This relatively small and untrained group of Jews seems to kill more Nazis during its time in the woods than all of France managed in the entire war. In the end, the Bielski brothers learn something about brotherhood and their bond. We learn that if every Jew had a gun, Hitler wouldn't have stood a chance. 1/2 (Gallucci)

Doubt - Playwright/screenwriter/director John Patrick Shanley's adaptation of his stage drama is directed with Clint Eastwood austerity and set in a working-class Catholic parish and parochial school in 1964 NYC. There, schoolchildren are kept in line by stern principal Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep in a hedge-clipped Bronx accent), a flinty alpha female of the old ways. Sister Aloysius' sore spot is Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the popular boys' basketball coach. Twelve-year-old Donald Miller (Joseph Foster II) is the first black to be admitted to the school. Intuiting that Donald is friendless and vulnerable, Father Flynn takes a special interest in him. Soon Sister Aloysius launches into a personal investigation into Father Flynn, accusing him directly of being a calculating child molester. Doubt is a story intended to afflict the comfortable and, while the cast couldn't be better, it's hard not to discern the moments that worked electrifyingly well in the intimacy of a stage presentation that were somewhat lost in the translation to film. 1/2 (Charles Cassady)

Frost/Nixon - Ron Howard's intelligent drama, derived from the Peter Morgan stage play, aspires to history written with lightning, but Oliver Stone's majestically flawed 1995 Nixon was there first, with more fire and operatic flair. This one feels like history written as a People nostalgia piece. The subject is a series of ballyhooed 1977 TV interviews done by English chat-show host and satirist David Frost (easily impersonated by Michael Sheen), who wrangled a costly Q&A with the infamously resigned Richard Nixon (Frank Langella, in a characterization not unlike Stone's, a gifted and wily statesman toting a massive psychological burden because he never felt as loved and accepted as JFK). Some of this feeds into lofty themes about the limits of power, culpability and owning up - and some of it just reduces this Watergate epilogue to an American Idol popularity competition: Frost vs. Nixon, who looks better on TV? 1/2 (Cassady)

Gran Torino - In Gran Torino, the 78-year-old Clint Eastwood plays Walt Kowalski, a retired Detroit autoworker mourning his recently deceased wife. Walt's hatreds are many: He grumbles at his teenage granddaughter's belly ring, the doting attention of his son and daughter-in-law (Brian Haley and Geraldine Hughes), the Asian family next door ("Damn barbarians!"), and at Father Janovich (Christopher Calrey), the round-faced young priest who urges Walt to come to confession. Walt is an unapologetic racist, trading ethnic jokes and scurrilous insults with his barber. He's also, for the sake of drama, hiding some unspecified, coughing-up-blood illness. There's considerable interest in the way the movie incorporates Eastwood's pet themes: the hero with the dark past he's trying to forget, and the gulf between mythologized heroics and ugly reality. With its unholy mix of cultural tolerance, racial stereotypes and gun violence, Gran Torino mirrors the contradictions of its director/star, a vegan, pro-gun pacifist who likes George Bush, hates the Iraq War and once threatened to kill Michael Moore. 1/2 (Pamela Zoslov)

Hotel for Dogs - An abandoned building that's become home to a group of wayward canines, the "hotel" in director Thor Freudenthal's feature-length debut is virtually a character in itself. That's where Andi (Emma Roberts) and Bruce (Jake T. Austin), two young orphans, set up an assortment of contraptions that enable the dogs to entertain themselves in the absence of their surrogate owners. While it might seem like the perfect opportunity to use computer-generated graphics to show the dogs doing an amazing array of tricks, that's not the case here, as a group of professional dog trainers trained the creatures to strut their stuff without imposing too many human qualities. As a result, the movie's unabashed charm (as well as the fact that not a single dog dies) distinguishes it from the slew of dog films that have recently hit theaters. 1/2 (Niesel)

Inkheart - German scribe Cornelia Funke's wrote the lead role of Mortimer "Mo" Folchart with fantasy- adventure actor Brendan Fraser in mind. So it's fitting that he actually got the role once director Iain Softley (Skeleton Key, The Wings of a Dove) signed onto the project. In Inkheart, Mo leads his 12-year-old daughter Meggie (Eliza Hope Bennett) and aunt Elinor (Helen Mirren) on a wild chase in search of the elusive Inkheart novel. Mo, who possesses the ability to make characters in a book come to life when he reads out loud, is trying to find the book so he can locate his wife Resa (Sienna Guillory), who's been abducted by one of its characters, the evil Capricorn (Andy Serkis). Along the way, a man named Dustfinger (Paul Bettany) helps them out as they enter a world (really Northern Italy) that's both fanciful and dangerous. While the movie's a bit derivative of the fantasy films popular with tweens and teens (Harry Potter, Narnia and The Golden Compass), it's very well-acted (Bettany and Mirren are especially good) and features a promising turn by newcomer Bennett. 1/2 (Niesel)

Last Chance Harvey - En route to London for his daughter's wedding, New York music-jingle composer Harvey Shine (Dustin Hoffman) learns that he's about to be phased out of his ad agency. Already depressed, Harvey discovers his daughter (Liane Balaban) has asked stepdad Brian (James Brolin) to walk her down the aisle. Deciding to skip the post-nuptial reception and make a quick getaway, Harvey makes the acquaintance of fortysomething singleton Kate Walker (Emma Thompson at her most deliciously imperious) at an airport lounge. Although Kate has no patience at first for the gregarious, needy American tourist, Harvey ultimately wins her over during an impromptu lunch. So slight and winsome that it's liable to be dismissed by hard-hearted cynics, Last Chance Harvey is as refreshing as a tart lemon soufflé served after a groaning board of overcooked holiday leftovers. 1/2 (Paurich)

Marley and Me - Virtually nothing happens in the first half of this mundane romantic comedy that stars Owen Wilson and Jennifer Aniston as John and Jennifer Grogan, a happy couple who leave the Midwest for the warmer Florida climate. She's an established journalist, and he wants to become a hard news reporter. When John begins to worry that Jennifer will want kids right away, he gets her an unruly lab named Marley. The dog is a handful, but the couple learn to love it all the same. After a cranky old editor (Alan Arkin) gives John his own column, he thrives, infusing his daily musings (many about Marley) with wit and humor. Things get a little tougher after the couple starts having kids, but their lives are generally conflict-free, something that makes the film a real bore. And given such an uneventful first half, it comes as an unwelcome surprise when tragedy strikes at its conclusion. (Niesel)

Milk - Gus Van Sant's docudrama about the life of activist Harvey Milk (Sean Penn), California's first openly gay elected politician, who helped transform San Francisco's Castro District into a gay-friendly neighborhood, is a return to form for the filmmaker who hasn't had a movie of consequence in some time. Penn is terrific as the eccentric politician who created a movement of sorts out of a photo shop, transforming the neighborhood into the notoriously gay mecca it is today. The supporting cast (featuring James Franco, Emile Hirsch, Josh Brolin, Diego Luna and Alison Pill) is excellent, too, making the movie a solid period piece as much as an activist saga. (Niesel)

My Bloody Valentine - Praise the horror movie gods! My Bloody Valentine 3D makes murder and mayhem fun again, proving not all remakes have to suck. The script, while by no means Oscar caliber, is a reasonably engaging "whodunit" that actually spends a little time on character development. The film also boasts a solid cast, including genre veteran Tom Atkins in a nice supporting role. This is an unapologetically violent film, and it also has a completely gratuitous nude scene. But unlike Saw and the so-called torture-porn horror of recent years, you won't feel like you need to take a shower after you leave the theater. Obviously, if you can't understand why anyone would want to watch a movie where eyeballs come flying out of the screen on the end of a pickaxe, this isn't for you. Horror fans should eat this one up like a box of chocolates, though. (Robert Ignizio)

Notorious - Raised by his single mom (Angela Bassett), Christopher Wallace (played by Wallace's real-life son) is a straight-A student who becomes disenchanted with his grade-school education and starts hustling drugs at an early age to show he's not just "the kid on the stoop." After he grows up, he starts rapping as the Notorious B.I.G. (Jamal Woolard) and cuts a demo that eventually catches the attention of young record exec Sean "Puffy" Combs (Derek Luke) who aspires to make the portly rapper into a star and does, even though it ends up costing the rapper his life. While it's not a particularly strong performance, Woolard is quite good at conveying Biggie's natural charm, especially during his interactions with the various women in his life. It's too bad this film, as much as it's an accurate portrayal of Biggie's life, doesn't spend a bit more time developing a character who as a kid was told he was "too fat, black and ugly" to amount to anything. 1/2 (Niesel)

Paul Blart: Mall Cop - The climate of low expectations that made some commentators twist themselves into pretzels insisting Bush was a fine president also makes movie comedies like Paul Blart: Mall Cop seem pretty darn good. And in truth, Mall Cop isn't nearly as bad as it ought to be, given its shopworn plot (misfit who lives with his mom becomes an unlikely hero) and unexceptional lead, King of Queens' Kevin James. Directed by Steve Carr (Are We Done Yet? Daddy Day Care) and written by James with Nick Bakay, it earns a passing grade for being agreeable, fitfully amusing and considerably less offensive than most movies of its type. 1/2 (Zoslov)

The Reader - At its best - which is most of the time - The Reader feels like the glory days of Miramax. Combining the literary pedigree of Bernhard Schlink's 1995 best-seller, an acclaimed director (Stephen Daldry of The Hours and Billy Elliott fame) and a prestigious cast (Kate Winslet, Ralph Fiennes, Lena Olin and Bruno Ganz among others), The Reader is the kind of accessible, sumptuously crafted highbrow movie that used to be Miramax's' bread and butter. Told in a series of flashbacks, the bulk of the action takes place in three timeframes. In 1958 Berlin, 15-year-old schoolboy Michael Berg (impressive newcomer David Kross) makes the acquaintance of "older woman" Hanna Schmitz (Winslet). Despite Winslet's fearless performance, Hanna remains a cruel, tantalizing enigma until the very end. It's precisely that sort of richly purposeful ambiguity that makes the film such a rewarding experience. 1/2 (Paurich)

Revolutionary Road - Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet's first pairing since Titanic made them stars in 1997 is a totally different kind of love story. Totally different. In fact, most of the time Revolutionary Road is a hate story about a 1950s suburban couple that can barely stand each other. DiCaprio and Winslet play Frank and April Wheeler, who meet at a party in the film's opening minutes. The movie is expertly acted, especially Michael Shannon as the mentally unstable son of a nosy neighbor (Kathy Bates, also terrific) who unnerves the usually reserved Frank. Still, the film is mostly a showcase for the 33-year-old Winslet, who grows more refined as she ages. Every line in her face reflects April's frustration. "No one forgets the truth," she says at one point. "They just get better at lying." It's one of the year's best and most honest performances. (Gallucci)

Slumdog Millionaire - Danny Boyle's latest is an irresistible hodgepodge of Bollywood and Charles Dickens. The story of 18-year-old street kid Jamal (Dev Patel, amiable if emotionally opaque) who makes a killing on that country's version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire, it's a fairy tale shot in glittery, in-your-face fashion. Convulsively entertaining, Slumdog Millionaire certainly looks like no other film, and it's only afterwards that the whole thing begins to disassemble a bit in your head. Is Boyle merely serving up a kickier form of colonial imperialism, tsk-tsking the sad lot of disenfranchised third-worlders like Jamal and his ragamuffin friends? After just one viewing, it's not certain. But the bitter aftertaste that kicks in once the sugar rush fades makes you wonder if Slumdog Millionaire isn't really just a Richard Attenborough movie in flashier threads. (Paurich)

The Unborn - In The Unborn, writer/director David S. Goyer delivers something like the Jewish version of The Exorcist. He isn't above stealing random scenes from just about every other horror movie he can think of either. The basic plot concerns college student Casey Beldon (Odette Yustman), who discovers that a nasty spirit called a Dybuk is trying to take possession of her. For some reason not quite explained, this is hard for the demon to do, even though it has no problem possessing other cast members, some of whom have their heads spin around just like Linda Blair. You'll feel like your head is about to spin around too, as you try to make sense of this mess. Not only is the screenplay bad, but Goyer's direction is flat and the performances are horrible. Even the normally reliable Gary Oldman seems like he's trying to blend into the background in a vain effort to avoid embarrassment. (Ignizio)

Underworld: Rise of the Lycans - Director Patrick Tatopolous makes this prequel to the previous two Underworld films seem like some kind of holocaust drama. Not that a movie about werewolves rising up against their cruel vampiric masters can't or shouldn't play it straight, but it requires a deft touch that Tatopolous lacks. So when the movie awkwardly becomes an allegory for real-life race relations, it's hard to know whether to laugh or be appalled as head vampire Viktor (Bill Nighy) calls werewolf Lucian (Michael Sheen) a credit to his race. Series star Kate Beckinsale wisely passed on this nonsense. Instead, we get Rhona Mitra as female vampire (and Viktor's daughter) Sonja, and she's every bit as wooden here as she was in last year's Doomsday. The first two films in the series weren't great, but at least they offered up some fun and excitement. This is just a dreary and pointless visualization of a backstory about which no one really cares. (Ignizio)

The Wrestler - In the latest film from Sundance veteran Darren Aronofsky, it's tough deducing just where aging wrestler Randy leaves off and Mickey Rourke - the actor playing him - begins. Like Randy, Rourke had a remarkable run back in the Reagan era. Also like Randy, shit happened to Rourke (drugs, messy break-ups, a misguided attempt at becoming a professional boxer), and his career was pretty much kaput by the time Bill Clinton was sworn into office. Since The Wrestler involves Randy's quixotic attempt at redemption - courtesy of a 20th anniversary rematch of one of his most illustrious bouts, and a possible reconciliation with his estranged daughter (a spiky Evan Rachel Wood) - it's impossible not to think of the film as Rourke's bid to reclaim his onetime Golden Boy status in Hollywood. The glory of Aronofsky's movie, and why it's faring so unexpectedly well during a particularly heated awards season, is that both character and actor triumph against some pretty formidable odds. (Paurich)

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  • CIFF Encore Presentation: CIFF40 Short Film Award Winners @ Capitol Theatre

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    • Tue., Oct. 4
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    • Tue., Oct. 11

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