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)
Bedtime Stories - When Marty Bronson (Jonathan Pryce) has to sell his mom-and-pop motel to developer Barry Nottingham (Richard Griffiths), he does so with the understanding that his son Skeeter (Adam Sandler) will eventually run the place. Well, Marty gets his wish. Sort of. Skeeter does take over but as the maintenance manager. Skeeter gets his chance to advance when Barry announces a contest for the design of a new hotel he plans to build. To win, Skeeter enlists the help of his niece and nephew, whom he's been babysitting. He hopes that because the bedtime stories he tells them magically come true, he'll have an advantage. But he ends up getting more than he bargained for when he tries to control the outcome of the final bedtime story. Sandler relies on his usual bag of tricks (talking like he's a little kid and making immature jokes), and his performance is nothing special. But Brit funnyman Russell Brand steals the show in a limited role as Skeeter's dim-witted sidekick. Opens Thursday areawide. (Jeff Niesel)
Beverly Hills Chihuahua - Disney has told this story Ð pampered pooch takes up with some dogs from the other side of the tracks and learns about true friendship Ð before. But Lady and the Tramp doesn't have a scene in which human stars Piper Perabo and Jamie Lee Curtis bark at each other on their cell phones. And unlike the 1955 animated hit, the live-action Beverly Hills Chihuahua has little charm, wit or subtlety. Spoiled, booty-wearing Chihuahua Chloe (voiced by Drew Barrymore) gets lost during a trip to Mexico. Over the next 90 minutes, she's recruited into a dog-fighting club, befriends a tough but lovable German Shepherd (Andy Garcia), gets conned by a rat and iguana (Cheech Marin and Paul Ridriguez), and eventually finds her bark. The dogs are cute; the fact that they say things like "talk to the paw" isn't. (Gallucci)
Bolt - The first Disney CGI 'toon produced since Pixar major domo John Lasseter took creative control of Walt Disney Animation Studios, Bolt has a cobbled-together, Chinese-menu feel. Its story of a dog that travels across country to find his way home inevitably recalls live-action Disney fare like 1963's The Incredible Journey (and less incredible 1993 remake, Homeward Bound). The movie's superhero elements - Bolt is a pampered pup who plays a Rin Tin Tin-like superdog on a popular TV series - hearkens back to Pixar's The Incredibles. Like last year's Meet the Robinsons, Bolt is out in both "flat" and digital 3-D versions. If you can find a theater 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, 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 be 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 backyard; he wonders about the nearby "farm" and its inhabitants who wear "pajamas" (striped prison uniforms). 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. 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 music buffs. Not helping matters is the unrequited love between singer Etta James (Beyoncé Knowles) and label owner Leonard Chess (Adrien Brody), which plays like a bad soap opera. A brief appearance by Chuck Berry (Mos Def) comes off as an afterthought in a film that tries to cover too much ground in too little time. (Niesel)
The Day the Earth Stood Still - Released in 1951, The Day the Earth Stood Still is one of the few science-fiction films from that era that can still play to modern audiences as something other than camp. Sadly, that can't be said about Scott Derrickson's remake. The storyline remains familiar: Klaatu (Keanu Reeves) has been sent to earth by a coalition of alien races to save the planet. Whether that includes saving human beings as well is of considerably less importance. It certainly doesn't argue in humanity's favor when Klaatu steps off his glowing space orb only to be greeted by unprovoked gunfire and imprisonment. But not everyone is so judgmental. The alien finds an ally in scientist Helen Benson (Jennifer Connelly) who helps him escape. At this point, the movie turns into a fairly typical action/chase film, with a useless subplot about Benson's stepson (Jaden Smith) coping with the death of his father. Almost no time is spent developing characters or themes, as Derrickson tries to cover up the essential emptiness of his film with noise and spectacle. Stay home and rent the original instead. (Robert Ignizio)
The Earrings of Madame De... (France/England, 1953) - A high-society drama about a pair of earrings that changes hands constantly. Cleveland Museum of Art Lecture Hall. At 1:30 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 30.
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 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)
Grand Illusion (France, 1937) - Jean Renoir's film is a classic anti-war movie. Cleveland Museum of Art Lecture Hall. At 1:30 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 28. The Leopard (Italy/France, 1962) - A prince's aristocratic lifestyle is about to change in Luchino Visconti's historical epic. Cleveland Museum of Art Lecture Hall. At 1:30 p.m. Friday, Dec. 26.
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 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)
The Magnificent Ambersons (US, 1942) - Orson Welles directed this film about the advent of the automobile. Cleveland Museum of Art Lecture Hall. At 1:30 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 27.
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 decide to leave the Midwest behind for the warmer Florida climate. She's an established journalist, and he has aspirations of becoming a hard-news reporter. When John begins to worry that Jennifer will want kids right away, he gets her a puppy instead. An unruly lab named Marley, the dog soon becomes a handful, but the couple learn to love it all the same. And after a cranky old editor (Alan Arkin) gives John a chance to write his own column, he thrives, infusing his 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, which makes the film a real bore to sit through. And given that the movie has such an uneventful first half, it comes as an unwelcome surprise when tragedy strikes at its conclusion. Opens Thursday areawide. (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 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)
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 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 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)
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. (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)
Role Models - Wheeler (Seann William Scott) and Danny (Paul Rudd) have got it made. Wheeler is a ladies man who seems to hook up with someone different every night. Danny is living with his girlfriend Beth (Elizabeth Banks), a brainy beauty who's a practicing lawyer. But for whatever reason, Danny just isn't happy. So one day, he loses it as he's in the middle of telling a group of kids to stay away from drugs (one of his duties as the spokesperson for an energy drink called Minotaur). As a result, he and Wheeler must do community service with a Big Brother-type organization called Sturdy Wings. That only leads to more trouble as Wheeler is paired with a potty-mouthed African-American kid (Bobb'e J. Thompson) and Danny ends up with a Dungeons and Dragons obsessed nerd (Christopher Mintz-Plasse). A Shaker Heights native, director David Wain (The Ten, Wet Hot American Summer) doesn't settle for sentimentality and often errs on the side of obnoxious, but at a time when Judd Apatow seems to have cornered the market on edgy comedy, it's good to see someone else take a worthwhile stab at it. (Niesel)
Russian Ark (Russia/Germany, 2002) - This film set in St. Petersburg's Hermitage Museum condenses 300 years of Russian history into one continuous, 90-minute shot. Cleveland Museum of Art Lecture Hall. At 1:30 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 31.
The Secret Life of Bees - The subject matter of this movie, which is set in segregated South Carolina in the '60s, isn't exactly kids' stuff. Raised by an abusive father, Lily (Dakota Fanning) runs away from home with her caretaker Rosaleen (Jennifer Hudson) and eventually ends up meeting the honey-making Boatwright sisters, an African-American family led by the matriarchal August Boatwright (Queen Latifah), a proud woman whose thriving beekeeping business has given them an usual amount of autonomy. August and her sisters June (Alicia Keys) and May (Sophie Okonedo) struggle to protect Lily from her abusive father as well as from the racist locals who don't like the fact that a white girl is living with an African-American family. Gina Prince-Bythewood (Love & Basketball), who also adapted the book, went to great lengths to make sure the film was realistic. And it shows. The film works equally well as chick flick and period piece. (Niesel)
Seven Pounds - Seven Pounds reunites actor Will Smith with Gabriele Muccino, the same director who made The Pursuit of Happyness. And like his character in that film, Smith plays Ben Thomas, a guy who's seemingly always running from one problem to the next. Posing as an IRS agent, Ben visits people in need and makes personal sacrifices so that their lives can become better. And yet, because he doesn't want to live with his pain anymore, he's on the verge of suicide, and not even unexpectedly falling in love with a terminally ill woman he meets (Rosario Dawson) can save him. The whole drama gets to be a bit much, as the film often settles for sentimentality and goes to extremes to evoke emotions. (Niesel)
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 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 Spirit - Hollywood struck gold with adaptations of Frank Miller's graphic novels Sin City and 300. Miller even got to co-direct Sin City, and with this film based on Will Eisner's The Spirit, he makes his solo directing debut. It's a bold, visually stunning movie that's long on style, but that can't entirely compensate for a ho-hum story and a hero who just isn't all that interesting. The Spirit (Gabriel Macht) runs and jumps around Central City in noirish fashion, trying to stop the evil machinations of the Octopus (Samuel L. Jackson) and his assistant Silken Floss (Scarlett Johansson). The situation is complicated when a woman from the Spirit's past, Sand Saref (Eva Mendes), and the Octopus each wind up with an artifact the other wants. There are some moments of fun in the movie, but far too much of it drags. Opens Thursday areawide. 1/2 (Ignizio)
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. 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)
Yes Man - Amusing return to 1990s form for manic funnyman Jim Carrey that should please his fans, after a string of not terribly popular non-comedic roles. As with Carrey's 1997 film Liar Liar, it's a simple-to-digest gimmick, as the star plays Carl, a Los Angeles bank-loan officer in a personal and professional slump, shunning commitments to friends and family and clients. Carl attends a feel-good seminar led by a self-help guru (Terence Stamp, who had a similar role as a quasi-Scientologist in Bowfinger), who admonishes him to turn his life around by saying "yes" to everything asked of him. Reluctantly at first, then with greater and greater joie de vivre and Carrey-okie zaniness, Carl unconditionally says yes to panhandlers, bank customers, internet-spam ads and, most crucially, a free-spirited West-Coast Boho chick (Zooey Deschanel) who begins to overcome the hero's divorce-bred fear of romantic commitment. Some third-act complications arise, more than anything else to satisfy a facile demand for third-act complications, but all ends happily. L.A. looks like a crazy-quilt multicultural wonderland where the sun always shines and anything is possible, and even being homeless could be loads of fun. Ah, if only life were like this. (Ignizio)