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)
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)
The Boy in the Striped Pajamas - A lovely adaptation by British filmmaker Mark Herman (Little Voice) of a novel by Irish author John Boyne, a fable about an 8-year-old German boy, Bruno (Asa Butterfield), whose father, Ralf (David Thewlis), is an ambitious Nazi kommandant. The family relocates from its comfortable Berlin mansion to "the countryside" (actually Poland) after his father is promoted to a position overseeing a concentration camp (Auschwitz, though never named; in the book Bruno understands it as "Out-With"). Bruno, an imaginative child who wants to become an explorer, is unhappy in the isolation of their gloomy new home. His child's mind doesn't grasp the horrors of the Nazi atrocities happening in his country and backyard; he wonders about the nearby "farm" and its inhabitants who wear "pajamas" (striped prison uniforms with numbers). Shot in Budapest, the movie is impeccably made, with fine performances and lapidary cinematography by Benoit Delhomme. 1/2 (Pamela Zoslov)
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)
Days of Wrath (Denmark, 1943) - A new restored print of Carl Theodor Dreyer's classic. Cleveland Institute of Art Cinematheque. At 6:45 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 18 and at 9:15 p.m. Friday, Dec. 19.
Delgo - This computer-animated feature is a heroic fantasy evidently aimed at childish mindsets that thought Star Wars: The Phantom Menace didn't have enough Jar Jar Binks. The setting is a nameless mythic realm where two humanoid races co-exist uneasily: one a faintly Jedi-like tribe of saurian semi-mystics, the other a haughty bunch with fairy-like wings who arrived as refugees but took over. A banished usurper, with an army of goblins/orcs/whatevers, tries to foment ruinous war between the two sides, but the title character (Freddy Prinze Jr.) and a princess (Jennifer Love Hewitt) save the day, in a sub-Tolkien narrative devoid of surprises. At least there are no songs. Maybe this is what the Israeli-Palestinian quagmire looks like after too much Elfquest. Some of the creature designs, seemingly taking a cue from cathedral gargoyles, are interesting, but Xbox-quality visuals are less than cutting edge, perhaps because Delgo sat on a shelf (or in a hard drive) for years, the dead giveaway being the late Anne Bancroft as the villainess. Maybe the Atlanta-based filmmakers got wrapped up playing World of Warcraft. Cynics about the future of film-less filmmaking can go all Lord Voldemort over the end credits, when the six (!) credited screenwriters and their cohorts crown each other with twee titles such as "Digital Demiurge" and "Mystic 'Mator of Motion." Ray Harryhausen have mercy on their souls. 1/2 (Charles Cassady)
Emmet Otter's Jug-Band Christmas (US, 1977) - This Muppets' Christmas special follows two otters who compete for a $50 prize. Cleveland Institute of Art Cinematheque. At 6 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 20 and 4:45 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 21.
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 folks. 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)
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)
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 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)
Moment to Moment (US, 1975) - Robert Downey Sr. stars in this sketch comedy with no plot. Cleveland Institute of Art Cinematheque. At 8:55 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 21.
Nothing Like the Holidays - A Christmas celebration takes a turn for the worse when Anna (Elizabeth Pe–a) announces that she plans to divorce Edy (Alfred Molina), her husband of many years, because she suspects he's been having an affair. The adult children all react differently, and we soon learn each has his or her own set of problems. Maurico (John Leguizamo) has married a rich bitch (Debra Messing) but isn't happy with her decision to wait to have children. Jesse (Freddy Rodriguez), back from Iraq, wants to serve another tour of duty rather than run the family bodega. Roxanna (Vanessa Ferlito) has been pursuing a Hollywood acting career but can barely support herself. Needless to say, the siblings soon put their differences aside and rally around their distraught parents. The all-star Latin cast makes the most of a rather predictable script. And yet, although the fact that the family is of Puerto Rican descent might add a twist to the conventional plot, it's not enough to keep Alfredo De Villa's film from coming off as a made-for-TV movie. 1/2 (Niesel)
Pound (US, 1970) - Robert Downey Sr. stars in this film set at an animal shelter where un-costumed actors portray dogs waiting to be either adopted or put to sleep. Cleveland Institute of Art Cinematheque. At 7 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 21.
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)
Rachel Getting Married - Rachel may indeed be getting married, but the real lead character is her recovering addict kid sister Kym (Anne Hathaway in a terrific performance that deserves a better vehicle), who gets a furlough from her stint in rehab to attend the festivities. Cue woozy high-def digital video camerawork, dizzying streams of Altman-esque overlapping dialogue and more family dysfunction than you can shake a stick at. The only scenes that truly work are ones featuring screen veteran Debra Winger (brilliant) as Kym and Rachel's mother. A searingly intense confrontation between Winger and Hathaway is the film's emotional highpoint and hints at the movie Rachel might have been if director Jonathan Demme had toned down his tortuous politically correct schtick and Dogme 95 affectations. (Paurich)
Slumdog Millionaire - Danny Boyle's latest is an irresistible, ingeniously structured hodgepodge of Bollywood (the souped-up romanticism and Day-Glo colors) and Charles Dickens (a classical narrative arc). The story of 18-year-old street kid Jamal (Dev Patel, amiable if emotionally opaque) raised in the Mumbai ghetto who makes a killing on that country's version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire, it's a rags-to-riches fairy-tale shot in glittery, in-your-face fashion, with lots of jump cuts and distorted fisheye lenses. Convulsively entertaining, Slumdog Millionaire certainly looks like no other film, and it's only afterward 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 Tale of Despereaux - For whatever reason, rodents have a rich film history, from Disney's 1950 Cinderella to last year's Oscar-winning Ratatouille. The Tale of Despereaux is the story of a young mouse (Matthew Broderick) whose bravery brings together a royal family and breathes life into a village obsessed with soup. Oddly enough, Despereaux the mouse gets relatively little screen time, as he shares his tale with a servant girl (Emma Watson) who's envious of a princess (Tracey Ullman), a rat (Dustin Hoffman) seeking redemption and a chef (Kevin Kline) whose soup has been outlawed. The result is a bland story filled with clichés about morals. While kids won't mind the confusing storyline or preachy Sigourney Weaver-voiced narration, parents will, although they'll probably just be happy the animation (a cross between poor computer animation and a claymation Christmas special) is good enough to keep their kids quiet. Opens Friday areawide. 1/2 (Jason Morgan)
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)
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