Capsule Reviews Of Current Releases 

OPENING

Absurdistan (Germany, 2008) - Director Veit Helmer (Tuvalu) creates a storybook world of sorts in this film about two young lovers who live in a remote part of the Soviet Union where a rusty pipeline has stopped delivering much-needed water. In order to get the lazy men to fix it, the women start withholding sex. So young Temelko (Max Mauff) who takes it upon himself to fix the damn thing. An extra incentive is that his childhood friend and potential lover Aya (Kristyna Malérová) promises to consummate their relationship if he can find the broken pipe and repair it within a week's time. Helmer's film has a terrific magical quality to it and brilliantly mixes the tragic with the comic. Malérová and Mauff are also great as a couple whose childhood friendship blossoms into a true romance. Cleveland Institute of Art Cinematheque. At 7 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 5, and 9:25 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 7. 1/2 (Jeff Niesel)

The Bridge on the River Kwai (U.S., 1957) - This David Lean World War II drama won seven Oscars. Cleveland Institute of Art Cinematheque. At 3 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 8.

Coraline - This animated adaptation of a Neil Gaiman book attempts to be something like The Nightmare Before Christmas, though the 3D doesn't pop with nearly the same magnitude. The storyline involves a young girl named Coraline (Dakota Fanning) who discovers a secret passage to an alternate version of her life where her parents actually listen to her and treat her like the queen she thinks she is. Turns out it's all a ruse by a wicked witch who's trying to steal her soul, and Coraline has to come up with an elaborate scheme in order to return to the real world. With its array of colorful foliage and talking animals, the film's fantasy world is certainly stunning. The story, however, has a few too many lulls and follows a pretty predictable trajectory. 1/2 (Niesel)

Fear(s) of the Dark (France, 2007) - An animated, black-and-white anthology from France, Fear(s) of the Dark promises thrills and chills of a subtle and psychological nature. One of the segments is by underground comic artist Charles Burns, a guy whose cartoonish style belies a twisted sensibility. Burns' segment, in which a strange insect finds a host inside a shy young man's girlfriend, is definite nightmare material, and the 3D animation perfectly brings his work to life. Marie Calliou's story about a girl who moves into a house that may be haunted by a samurai really pulls you in, but it lacks an ending. In fact, the way it was split into parts, you expect the film to come back and finish this segment right up until the credits rolled. Another recurring sequence, by Pierre di Sciullo, in which a series of abstract shapes form and change while a narrator whines about all his neuroses, is just flat out annoying. Cleveland Institute of Art Cinematheque. At 9:25 p.m. Friday, Feb. 6, and 8:50 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 8. Find a longer version of this review online at clevescene.com. (Robert Ignizio)

Garde ˆ Vue (France, 1981) - Showing as part of the French Crime Wave series, this Claude Miller film features Lino Ventura as a relentless police inspector who questions a suspicious lawyer (Michel Serrault) on New Year's Eve. Cleveland Institute of Art Cinematheque. At 5:30 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 7.

Harvard Beats Yale 29-29 (US, 2008) - You don't have to be a football enthusiast to enjoy Kevin Rafferty's (The Atomic Cafe) terrifically entertaining documentary about the storied gridiron match-up between Harvard and Yale on November 23, 1968 that ended in a 29-29 tie after underdog Harvard scored 16 points during the game's final 42 seconds. Interspersed with archival footage of the game are disarmingly candid, frequently hilarious interviews with many of the former players, including Crimson alumnus Tommy Lee Jones. By contextualizing the game within the political maelstrom that was 1968 - the two teams included SDS as well as ROTC members - Rafferty makes this more than just an amusing footnote in the annals of college sports history. As a time capsule of a recent period in American history, Harvard Beats Yale is both inspiring and profoundly moving. At the Cleveland Museum of Art. At 7 p.m. Friday, Feb. 6, and 1:30 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 8. (Milan Paurich)

This Happy Breed (Britain, 1944) - Noel Coward wrote the screenplay for this David Lean film about a London family living in the between-war (1919-39) years. Cleveland Museum of Art Lecture Hall. At 6:45 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 11.

Waltz with Bashir - Can a cartoon be a documentary, and vice versa? That's the question posed by Waltz With Bashir, the wildly acclaimed, Oscar-nominated genre-bender from director Ari Folman, which takes an impressionistic look at the experiences of Israeli soldiers during the 1982 Lebanon war. Bashir's visual style isn't too far removed from the rotoscoping technique employed by Richard Linklater in Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly. But unlike Linklater's trippy slacker chronicles, Folman uses animation to distance us from the horrors of war and bring us closer to the actual combat experience. While a Ph.D in modern Israeli history isn't a requirement to appreciating the artistry and moral courage of Waltz With Bashir, it probably helps to have at least a passing familiarity with the subject before going in. Find a longer version of this review online at clevescene.com. (Paurich)

ONGOING

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 (foremost, there's that whole aging-in-reverse thing). Still, it's Fincher's most traditional film. He's never been so sentimental or aimed this high (not even in the rule-breaking Se7en, Fight Club or last year's under-seen but terrific Zodiac). 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 own 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, who disdains even putting sugar in her tea. Sister Aloysius' spre spot jovial Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the popular boys' basketball coach and a recent arrival at the parish. One of Flynn's altar boys, 12-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. File this in Catholic-movie purgatory alongside that Jane Fonda version of Agnes of God. 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)

I've Loved You So Long - Kristin Scott Thomas brings such a flinty, coiled intensity to her role as a middle-aged woman newly released from prison after serving a 15-year sentence in I've Loved You So Long that she damn near burns a hole through the screen. Cautiously navigating the particulars of an outside world she left long ago, Scott Thomas' Juliette almost seems like an alien being when kid sister Lea (the excellent Elsa Zylberstein) picks her up at the airport at the start of the film. For a while, most of Juliette's overdetermined actions - making small talk with her young nieces, interviewing for a job she's clearly overqualified for, just getting through the day like normal folk do - seem to take place in slo-mo. But by the time Juliette reveals the whole truth behind her incarceration, it's like a splash of cold water in the face, and one of the year's great movie moments. 1/2 (Paurich)

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. (Ignizio)

New in Town - This spotty "fish out of water" romantic comedy, directed by Denmark's Jonas Elmer, is amiable and endearing, but ultimately lacks imagination and cohesion. The early scenes, in which Lucy Hill (Renée Zellweger), an ambitious food-company executive in Miami, agrees to relocate to frigid New Ulm, Minnesota to oversee a factory conversion, have a nice indie-film quirkiness as Lucy experiences some icy culture shock. While the movie has a strong beginning and a triumphant ending, it's the stuff in the middle that's lacking, even though Zellweger - less pinch-faced than usual but awfully pale for a Floridian - is effective as the exec in powder-blue power suits who gradually lets her hair down. Find a longer version of this review online at clevescene.com. 1/2 (Zoslov)

Outlander - No relation to the 1981 Sean Connery space western Outland, this lukewarm production is not the first, nor likely the last, sci-fi picture to take its cues from Beowulf. Thinly backstoried space colonist Kainan (James Caviezal) crash-lands on grunge-tastic Viking-era Earth, where John Hurt's tribe of barely Christianized Norsemen captures him. Kainan the Neo-Barbarian must win the suspicious Scandinavians' trust and lead them in a fight against a marauding alien stowaway now laying waste to the fjords. The toothy CGI hell-monster calls to mind not so much Grendel as the dread Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal - thank you, Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy - but it's got a legitimate grievance against the humans, resulting in gore-filled battle scenes that are the only real reason for the R rating. Even with some impressive production design, costuming and moments of Viking bonhomie so dear to the hearts of medieval re-enactors, the ponderous, fairly predictable storyline and solemn, pause-filled dialogue (what is this, Harold Pinter's last script?) make the saga feel eons longer than it needs to be. (Cassady)

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 fortunately is most of the time - The Reader feels like the glory days of Miramax, the mom-and-pop (literally) company that Harvey and Bob Weinstein started three decades ago in their parents' basement. Combining the literary pedigree of Bernhard Schlink's acclaimed 1995 best-seller, an acclaimed director (Stephen Daldry of The Hours and Billy Elliott fame) and a prestigious cast (the ineffable 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 the Weinsteins' bread and butter. Told in a series of flashbacks (Schlink related the story chronologically in his book), 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 the brilliant Winslet's typically 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, 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)

Taken - After years of work as a "preventer," as he puts it, Bryan Mills (Liam Neeson) is slowly putting his life back in order. He's moved to Los Angeles to be close to his 17-year-old daughter Kim (Maggie Grace), of whom he's very protective, even though she now lives with her mother (Famke Janssen). So when Kim tells her dad she's going to Paris to vacation with a girlfriend, he immediately worries about her safety. When she's abducted by a group of scumbag Albanians who turn unsuspecting young tourists into prostitutes, he does what any father with a background in espionage and intelligence affairs would do: He sets out to find the bastards and kill them. We soon learn hell hath no fury like a father scorned. Like James Bond or even Jason Bourne, Bryan Miller gets himself in and out of one improbable situation after the other, hotwiring cars, posing as a French policeman and eluding the bad guys in an intense off-road chase along the way. Neeson, though more than up for the role's physical requirements, isn't quite as charismatic as a Daniel Craig or Matt Damon. Still, the movie's suspenseful enough and packs plenty of action into its 90-minute running time. 1/2 (Niesel)

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 Uninvited - Despite the PG-13 rating, The Uninvited isn't your typical teen-oriented fright flick. Directed with care and subtlety by the Guard Brothers, this remake of the Korean film A Tale of Two Sisters comes very close to being a top-notch psychological thriller. Anna (Emily Browning) has just returned home after spending some time in an asylum recovering from the trauma of her mother's death. Once home, she and her sister Alex (Arielle Kebbel) take an instant dislike to Dad's (David Strathairn) new girlfriend Rachael (Elizabeth Banks). Those sentiments are only reinforced when it seems like Mom's ghost is trying to tell Anna that her death wasn't an accident. The tale is gripping for the most part, but eventually it becomes bogged down in twists and turns at the expense of satisfying storytelling. Rather than elicit the kind of surprise the filmmakers intended, the conclusion is only good for a groan. That's too bad, because otherwise there's a lot to like here. 1/2 (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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