At Home Among Strangers, Stranger at Home (USSR, 1974) - A train gets robbed by a group of bandits in the first movie directed by future Oscar winner Nikita Mikhalkov. Cleveland Institute of Art Cinematheque. At 8:45 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 11.
Australia - Is Baz Luhrmann's sprawling epic Australia a love story? An adventure pic? A war flick? In the grand tradition of old-school Hollywood movies, Luhrmann's $130 million movie is all of these. Set in 1939, on the eve of Australia's involvement in World War II, English aristocrat Sarah Ashley (played with proper stick-up-her-ass form by Nicole Kidman) inherits property in Australia. A conniving cattleman and his evil henchman have other plans for the land. Enter outback cowboy Drover (a dashing Hugh Jackman) to save the day. While Luhrmann doesn't paint Australia with the stylish pop-art colors he applied to Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge!, he does inject some fantasy elements. Luhrmann clearly loves his country, as do native stars Kidman and Jackman. "This land has a strange power," someone says to Sarah near the beginning of the movie. Indeed. Australia, like The Wizard of Oz, has a dreamlike pull. The film represents the country at its most old-Hollywood magnificent. And at its hoariest. 1/2 (Michael Gallucci)
Babo 73 (US, 1964) - Robert Downey Sr. stars in this political satire, set against the backdrop of the 1964 Johnson-Goldwater race. Cleveland Museum of Art Cinematheque. At 8:05 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 14.
Bolt - The first Disney CGI 'toon produced since Pixar major domo John Lasseter took creative control of Walt Disney Animation Studios, Bolt has something of a cobbled-together, Chinese-menu feel. Its story of a dog that must travel across country to find his way home inevitably recalls classic live-action Disney fare like 1963's The Incredible Journey (and the less incredible 1993 remake, Homeward Bound). The movie's superhero elements - Bolt is a pampered pup who plays an invincible Rin Tin Tin-like superdog on a popular TV series - hearkens back to Pixar's The Incredibles. But like last year's Meet the Robinsons, Bolt is out in both "flat" and digital 3-D versions. If you can find a theater near you that offers the latter option, it's definitely worth it. Movies may be getting worse these days, but the bells and whistles are better than ever. 1/2 (Milan Paurich)
Cadillac Records - Held together by an awkward voiceover by Willie Dixon (Cedric the Entertainer), this chronicle of the history of Chess Records comes off as a made-for-TV movie, despite good intentions. Emphasizing the topsy-turvy relationships between rivals Howlin' Wolf (Eamonn Walker), Little Walter (Columbus Short) and Muddy Waters (Jeffrey Wright), Cadillac Records is too concerned with drama to appeal to true music buffs. Not helping matters is the unrequited love between singer Etta James (Beyoncé Knowles) and label owner Leonard Chess (Adrien Brody), which plays out like a bad soap opera. A brief appearance by Chuck Berry (Mos Def) comes off as an afterthought in a film that simply tries to cover too much ground in too little time. (Jeff Niesel)
Four Christmases - "How can you appreciate someone for who they are if you don't really know them?" Courtney (Kristin Chenoweth) asks sis Kate (Reese Witherspoon) in Four Christmases, a holiday-themed rom-com co-starring Vince Vaughn. So, for 90 minutes, three-year-old couple Kate and Brad (Vaughn) get to really know each other. But it turns out that they really don't like, let alone appreciate, each other afterward. Four Christmases essentially plays like a quartet of vignettes (some funny, some not so much), each featuring its own squabbling siblings, puking babies and horny old folk. Vaughn plays his usual fast-talking, smartass Everyguy; Witherspoon pretty much tags along as his best-girl buddy. Director Seth Gordon (who helmed last year's terrific videogame doc, The King of Kong) parades movie vets Robert Duvall, Mary Steenburgen, Jon Voight and Sissy Spacek across the screen as Kate and Brad's parents. He's more inspired, however, with Vaughn's old Swingers pal Jon Favreau as Brad's "semi-professional cage fighter" brother, a 'roided up a-hole who greets Brad with headlocks and body slams. (Gallucci)
Let the Right One In - This Norwegian vampire movie is a love story as much as it's a horror flick, and Tomas Alfredson's movie is so beautifully shot, the scenes of bloodsucking are almost transcendent. The story concerns Oskar (Kare Hedebrant), a shy 12-year-old who's regularly bullied at school. When it turns out his new 12-year-old neighbor Leni (Lina Leandersson) is also a loner, he falls in love with her, taking her advice to "hit back" when he's attacked. Oskar starts hitting the weights and the next time the bully comes to get him, he's ready. But Leni is soon the scourge of the town after several witnesses see her attacking her victims. When she's forced to leave, Oskar has to decide if he should follow. The young characters in this film are well-defined and its tragic story is compelling, you'll find it compelling even if you're not a fan of the genre. (Niesel)
Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa - Escape 2 Africa picks up where the other Madagascar left off. The four animals - lion Alex (voiced by Ben Stiller), zebra Marty (Chris Rock), giraffe Melman (David Schwimmer) and hippo Gloria (Jada Pinkett Smith), who were raised in captivity and pampered in a New York City zoo all their lives - are still stranded in the wild and want to go home. With the help of cross-dressing, egomaniacal lemur King Julien (Borat's Sacha Baron Cohen in full off-the-hook mode), a pair of uppity monkeys and a bunch of straight-talkin', take-charge penguins, the stars board a broken-down plane bound for New York. The movie dispenses with Julien's "I like to move it, move it" signature showstopper early, leaving him plenty of time to dress in drag, plot his takeover of New York and arrange an impromptu volcano sacrifice. Escape 2 Africa pops during these scenes. The rest of the time it merely diverts the kids with the usual throwaway jokes about boogers and big butts, while Mom and Dad smirk knowingly at the Planet of the Apes and Twilight Zone references. 1/2 (Gallucci)
No More Excuses (US, 1968) - Robert Downey Sr. stars in this comedy about a Northern Civil War soldier who wakes up in 1960s New York. Cleveland Institute of Art Cinematheque. At 7 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 14.
Punisher: War Zone - It doesn't really matter if Punisher: War Zone is a sequel to 2004's The Punisher or a reboot of the franchise. With a drastically different tone than its predecessor, this latest take on Marvel Comics' grim vigilante tale stands on its own. Where the original Punisher strived for respectability with a top-notch cast and PG-13 rating, War Zone takes its cue from the revenge flicks that originally inspired the character. This movie not only earns its R rating but also seems determined to give Rambo a run for its money as the most violent film of 2008. Taking over the title role from Thomas Jane, Ray Stevenson is suitably menacing as he blows away underworld scum. But the most enjoyable performances are from Dominic West and Doug Hutchison, chewing up the scenery (and the occasional supporting actor) as villainous brothers Jigsaw and Loony Bin Jim. There may be better films playing this holiday season, but none features a better dinner-table decapitation scene. (Robert Ignizio)
Quantum of Solace - Casino Royale, the first Bond film to star the brooding Daniel Craig as the debonair spy, borrowed heavily from the Bourne franchise and did some reinventing of its own. And it goes way deeper than the leaps and bounds of the breathtaking chase scene. Bond killed men with his bare hands (just like Bourne!), he relied on brains rather than some high-tech thingamajig to get out of jams (just like Bourne!) and it all ended on a downer note (yep, just like Bourne). That's where Quantum of Solace, the 22nd James Bond film, picks up. Immediately after the death of his girlfriend at the hands of the enigmatic Quantum organization, Bond speeds through Italy's winding mountain roads - in a gripping pre-titles sequence - with one of the group's masterminds tied up in his trunk. But before Bond and his secret-service colleagues (including boss M, played by a stern Judi Dench) have a chance to question the shadowy Mr. White, he escapes with the help of a Quantum mole. While Quantum of Solace features a typically convoluted Bondsian plot, it's mostly personal this time, as Bond and a new gal pal (Olga Kurylenko) set out for revenge. (Gallucci)
Transporter 3 - Directed by the wonderfully named Olivier Megaton from a script by Luc Besson and Robert Mark Kamen, Transporter 3 seems to have been written by taking the first film's screenplay and crossing out the names of the supporting characters and substituting new ones. Add a few new stunts and fights, and you've got the movie. The film is Jason Statham's third go-around as driver-for-hire Frank Martin, and once again Frank has to deliver a package for some bad guys. It's no surprise said package is an attractive young red-headed girl (Natalya Rudakova) who also doubles as Frank's love interest. His job is to keep her safe from a group of thugs out to get both her and him. That's the primary plot. Aside from Statham's undeniable screen charisma, Transporter 3 is a pretty typical Grade B action film. It's got just enough plot to string together the action scenes and is full of utterly ridiculous moments, but it does deliver the goods if you like car chases and karate chops. 1/2 (Ignizio)
Twilight - Twilight, the film adaptation of Stephenie Meyer's best-selling young-adult vampire novel, tells the story of Bella (Kristen Stewart), a 17-year-old girl who moves to the small town of Forks, Washington to live with her father (Billy Burke). Forks is also where a vampire named Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson) lives with his surrogate "family" of nice vampires. They survive on animal rather than human blood and do their best to pass as normal. So the ageless Edward is hard at work on what is probably his 20th high-school diploma when Bella is assigned the seat next to him in biology class. At first, Edward gives Bella the cold shoulder, not because he doesn't like her but because he likes her so much he can barely keep himself from tearing her throat out and drinking her blood. Vampire love is kind of strange that way. Edward manages to get a grip on himself and the two become an item, but trouble is lurking in the background in the form of three not-so-nice vampires. James (Cam Gigandet) catches a whiff of Bella's scent and decides to make her his next victim. The horrific and overtly sexual aspects of vampirism are downplayed in favor of romantic fantasy, which is understandable considering its target market of tweens and teens. More problematic are characters lacking depth, the shaky performance of lead actress Stewart and a plot full of ridiculous contrivances. (Ignizio)
Warsaw Bridge (Spain, 1990) - This adults-only film from surrealist Pere Portabella consists of a series of vignettes and images of Barcelona. At 7:30 p.m. Friday, Dec. 12 and at 9 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 13. White Sun of the Desert (USSR, 1969) - A Russian Western, this movie follows a Red Army officer who tries to protect a group of women who've been liberated from a harem. Cleveland Institute of Art Cinematheque. At 7 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 11.
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